This past Friday, an article in the Daily Memphian reported that the investigation into financial “anomalies” by the Tennessee Comptroller Office was no longer active, nor were there any violations to be reported. In April of last year, Mayor Mike Cunningham stunned the city when he announced that he and fellow Commissioner Richard Gonzales had found numerous anomalies in the city’s finances and had turned them over to the State for investigation. Since that time, a dark cloud has hung over Lakeland with no further comment or explanation from any of the parties involved. Now that the Comptroller has cleared Lakeland and its employees of wrongdoing, that cloud has been lifted and we can now move on but at what cost?
There have been several allegations made against previous Lakeland administrations by members of a disgruntled anti-growth, anti-schools mob known as the “Concerned Citizens of Lakeland.” All these allegations have been baseless, rooted in innuendo and half-truths, with absolutely no substantiating evidence despite their constant access to city records through Freedom of Information Act requests. Since they couldn’t uncover any illicit dealings, they turned to a hail mary demand of a full forensic audit of all the City’s finances hoping that something, anything would be uncovered. They did not trust the yearly audits done by an outside accounting firm that not only showed all monies fully accounted for, but that the City’s financial position was strengthening over time. As the 2018 mayoral and Board of Commissioner elections drew near, they looked for candidates that could be easily manipulated to their agenda, whom they found in Mike Cunningham and Richard Gonzales. Indeed, Mr. Cunningham took up the cause of the forensic audit as a plank of his campaign for mayor. Forensic audits are not inexpensive to conduct-some cost reports of similar sized city have run upwards of $100,000-and are usually only done when a city suspects fraud or theft, if account balances are not what they should be, or if vendors have not been paid. Again, yearly publicly available audits showed no indication that any of these scenarios applied to Lakeland but still the CCLA and Cunningham insisted.
At some point between just before the election of 2018 and February 2019, Cunningham and Gonzales met with the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury to report what Cunningham described in his announcement as “numerous questionable financial anomalies. I’m not talking one or two, I’m talking double digits.” He would not elaborate on what those anomalies were or who they involved, but in his reporting he took the highly unusual step of bypassing city employees such as the City Attorney, the City Manager, the City Accountant and the remaining members of the Board of Commissioners. It was then that he finally demanded the City undergo a “full forensic audit of all Lakeland’s departments and entities, including the School Board”, finally making good on his campaign pledge of the summer and pleasing some of his biggest donors. Did he really uncover anomalies by himself in his spare time that a full team of people could not find for years? According to the Comptroller no he did not, but was that even his main goal? The last part of his sentence “…including the School Board” helps to answer that question.
It has long been an effort by the CCL to block Lakeland from educating its own children saying that Lakeland is incapable of providing quality education, but test scores have shown just the opposite. They also believe that education should not be a priority for Lakeland. In 2017 a lawsuit was filed against the City to stop the building of the high school. The main plaintiffs of the case were Cary and Lillie Melton, James Abbott, William Mallard, Brian Tipler, Deborah Tipler, Christopher Smith, Melissa Smith, Heather Long and James Murray. According to campaign finance records Lillie Melton, William Mallard, Brian Tipler and Deborah Tipler combined to donate over $1000 to the election fund of Cunningham and the Tiplers also donated to Gonzales’ fund. It would not be a stretch to imagine that these donations were made with the understanding that certain desires, such as a forensic audit and a delay on the building of the middle school, would come to pass. If not, why did Cunningham’s or Gonzales’ names never appear on any FOI requests to the city prior to the election? It is difficult to envisage a person with no training in accounting being able to find anomalies totaling in the “double digits” in three months while those combing the books for years prior could not.
So why should we care whether the Comptroller moved on with findings? Surely it is better to have clarity on the issue and move on as a city? Can we rest better knowing that Lakeland’s finances are indeed without error? The simple answers are yes, we can move on and yes, it is good to know that Lakeland’s accounts are not riddled with errors. But if we move beyond the surface, we see that there are consequences to the Mayor’s actions. First, it is the method that he used the report his allegations. Normally, one would go through the City Manager and the City Attorney to report suspected wrongdoing. By not doing so, the Mayor implies that his own staff are complicit in possible offenses. This erodes the community’s confidence in the staff that run the city on a day in-day out basis. It also erodes the staff’s confidence in their own positions leading to poor morale or resignations. The specter of the unknown also hinders a city’s ability to hire. All these situations have manifested themselves here. Second, the allegations continue to cast Lakeland in a negative light and stymies growth. People and businesses want to locate in areas of stability. The constant fight against schools and lawsuits against the city in addition to the anti-business agenda of the MPC/DRC that Cunningham has appointed have at best given hesitation to relocation plans. The addition of allegations of governmental wrongdoing does nothing but magnify those feelings. Mayors are tasked with uplifting the city that they represent not embody methods to do the opposite. Unfortunately, our Mayor seems intent on the latter. Third, the Mayor ran for election on a platform of transparency. This whole process has lacked transparency from the beginning. After news broke Friday that there was no investigation ongoing, the Mayor refused to comment any further and Gonzales saying “…as the circumstances related to these issues evolve…” Besides being grammatically unfortunate, the statement would lead us to believe that the matter has not been resolved. What further action are they going to take? We can only speculate because as of this writing, the Mayor has no further comment (a familiar refrain from Cunningham). Lastly, if you are upset that your child will miss the opening of Lakeland Prep, the Mayor should draw your ire. This was another attempt to at best delay the school and at worst kill it all together. By having the City under investigation, it was hoped that Lakeland would not be able to obtain financing for the school from the USDA or any other source. Let us be clear-the anomalies issue was not because of any findings of impropriety made by the Mayor. It was solely a method to the means of conducting a forensic audit of Lakeland’s finances with the hope of delaying or stopping funding for a high school.
The Mayor has shown in a year and a half of being in office that he cannot separate himself from his donors to do the job of representing all of Lakeland. Competent leadership on the part of Josh Roman, Wesley Wright, Michele Dial and former Mayor Bunker have led to the CCL to call for their jobs for years. What calls should be made for less than competent leadership? The mayor has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to disparage this City. Citizens should at minimum demand to know what anomalies the Mayor discovered as well as a true timeline for the discoveries and the meetings with State and local enforcement. From there it is up to the citizenry to decide the price the Mayor should pay if he has failed to lead the entirety of Lakeland.