Mount Vernon — Newly elected Mount Vernon Mayor Richard W. Thomas has had one of the roughest transitions in the city’s history. Facing everything from supporters becoming adversaries for a number of reasons, questions of his finances and heavy critical analysis of his appointments. Without any trace of the customary honeymoon period (90-100 days), or a chance to catch his breath, it doesn’t look to be getting any easier as we come to the close of his first month in office.
The latest allegations against the mayor may be the worst to date. Mayor Thomas is accused of allegedly refusing to sign over 100 checks, he had for over a week, in an alleged retaliation for the Comptroller and the City Council not approving over $750,000 requested to hire additional staff, including $135,000 for a Chief of Staff position.
City Comptroller Maureen Walker first handed the checks to Thomas Jan 20th and when they were not signed, she requested them back so she could locked them up in her office over the weekend to protect the privacy and personal information of those the checks were made out to. Over the course of the next week or so, she never received the signed or unsigned checks back.
Walker had to void out the checks and issue new checks because they need to be signed and issued in a timely manner. Council President Marcus Griffith had to leave his job and come into City Hall, Friday morning to sign all the checks so they could be given out, once the Comptroller realized they were not going to be signed by the mayor.
According to the City Council and the Comptroller, the checks included payment to The School District, The School Board, City of Mt. Vernon Employee Health Benefits, checks to City Vendors, the Mount Vernon Police Department, the city’s Con Edison bill, and even a check for the Animal Shelter.
“That’s just a handful of the checks I asked Marcus to sign because Marcus is on the account,” Comptroller Walker tells BW.
We then asked her to explain further how Councilman Griffith can sign the checks and she informed us that there are always two signatures on each check. One is the Comptroller or her First Deputy and the other can either be the mayor or the council president. So when the mayor did not sign the 111 checks he still has in his possession with her signature on it, she voided them out and requested Councilman Griffith come to City Hall and sign the checks
“The mayor speaks to collaborations with the Mt. Vernon City School District, however he has failed to sign upwards to two million dollars in checks for tax collections from the comptroller’s office, which could be used to pay city school district employees and or services,” Council President Griffith tells BW. “Holding up two million dollars in tax payments does not seem to be collaboration with our city partners.”
“Taxes we collect on behalf of the school, we remit to the school,” Walker tells BW. “So those were taxes we collected on behalf of the school.”
Checks included city of Mt Vernon benefits that have to be paid or the employees would not have benefits February 1st.
“Some of the checks needing to be signed by the mayor were the required city employees checks for health benefits,” the Council President informs BW. “There is no need to withhold signing the checks for the city employees health benefits.”
When we caught up to Mayor Thomas, he told a different story.
“My Advisory Committee requested that we perform a quality control review for all checks requiring signature by the Mayor,” Mayor Richard Thomas told BW when we reached out to him for a comment on the matter. “We received numerous late vendor payment requests from the Comptroller’s office with invoices dating back as far as September 2015. The bottom line is that taxpayers are entitled to a careful review as to why these payments are delinquent in the first place. In addition, we are taking extra care to determine whether these transactions are legal and prudent.”
Maureen Walker expressed her disappointment in the new Mayor; “I am very very disappointed in his attitude. These are vendors who have serviced us and need to be paid in a timely manner. I just sent the final letter to him saying that he must return all checks and all documentation that accompany the checks, so we can have it in our office. When we prepare checks, they have to be in a secure place at the end of the day. We have our vault here, all checks must be put away. Checks must not be on anyone’s desk or in anybody’s draw. We don’t know where these checks are upstairs [in the mayor’s office]. This is an internal control issue now. We must secure checks. Those checks already have my signature on them. We have checks for vendors who are calling and there is absolutely no reason for the mayor not to sign those checks.”
Mayor Thomas says the current payment system is outdated and vulnerable to fraud and mismanagement.
“We informed the Comptroller’s office of our quality review process in early January 2016. We also advised Comptroller Walker that we are taking the necessary steps to implement an electronic payment system,” Mayor Thomas continued. “A paper-based payment system is vulnerable to fraud and mismanagement. New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has found Mount Vernon’s payroll process questionable. We will continue to press for sensible reforms in the way the City handles its finances.”
Mayor Thomas address the City Council at the January 27th Council Meeting, requesting a transfer of funds for a Chief of Staff.
“The operation of this city is working hard and working fast, but we can work smarter,” Mayor Thomas said to the City Council. “I think if you were to authorize a transfer of funds for a Chief of Staff, it would be a tremendous benefit…” (see video below for the Mayors full comments to city council)
After the public speaking portion of the City Council meeting, the council members addressed the requests and concerns of those who signed up to speak. One of the most vocal was Councilman J. Yuhanna Edwards.
“Transfers of funds, you know we have to sit down for that…,” Councilman Edwards said addressing the Mayor’s request for funds. “… and I know I asked you to be much more involved than you were during the budget process. I wish you had been more involved and brought out some of these concerns as we were going over it, line for line. For now it makes it a little more difficult to give you the funds you need…” (see video with Councilman Edwards full comments below)
There was also a check made out to Apple Metro Inc., for $496, that the mayor hasn’t signed. The Youth Bureau randomly takes the youth on different trips or to various companies. The check was for the Youth Bureau to take the children to learn how the restaurant industry works, Saturday. But if Walker hadn’t issued another check on Friday morning and had Griffith come in and sign it, so Apple metro got the check, the trip would have been cancelled.
“It’s unfortunate that this type of behavior goes on in our city government, where the people have elected us to do their business at a standard no less than excellent,” Councilman André Wallace tells BW. “Being that I sit over the mayor’s office, I intend to look over this matter.”
[Editor’s Note: Right after the publishing of this article, Mayor Thomas shared a letter he sent to the Comptroller’s office, in response to her letter, requested all unsigned checks back. This article has been updated at 5:08 P.M. to include the Mayor’s Letter. You can read it in its entirety below]
Dear Comptroller Walker,
I am concerned with recent actions taken by your office in regards to delivering checks for signatures. Routinely, checks have been delivered to my office with no notice or coordination. Your office has requested signatures and then demanded checks back when signatures are not immediately granted. This is an extremely inefficient process.
In light of the official warning received from the New York State Authorities Budget Office in regards to the Mount Vernon Urban Renewal Agency’s failure to file necessary reports, the Office of the Mayor will review checks prior to signing them. This is to ensure all departments and agencies remain in compliance with New York State law. The expectation that checks delivered to this office will be unilaterally signed without review is unfounded.
In addition, I have reviewed the New York State Comptroller Office’s audit of Mount Vernon’s payroll process that was released in 2015 and I am taking immediate steps to implement a move to an electronic, paperless check signing system. This is in line with the concerns raised by the New York State Comptroller’s Office and will save the city significant funds as the cost to print checks and supply envelopes is substantial.
Mayor, City of Mount Vernon