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Citizens voice variety of concerns during City Council meeting

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to remove demographic statistics that were incorrect.
SALISBURY — During the public comment period at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, many people expressed grave concerns about issues ranging from the loss of use of Miller Recreation Center to a lack of diversity among city employees.
Several speakers complained that the community has no access to Miller Recreation, a city-owned center at 1402 W. Bank St., now that the Salvation Army has contracted with the city to provide programs there.
Cheryl Freeman, a volunteer who runs the Salisbury Drill Team, said she has up to 60 at-risk youth on her dance team, which used to practice at Miller Rec. Now, they have nowhere to go.
“Because of the lack of facilities for the kids, kids are going back to the streets,” Freeman said. “We really need to buckle up because like he said, Missouri is real, and that can happen anywhere.”
Freeman and other speakers referred to the violence and racial conflict in Ferguson, Mo. sparked by the police killing of an unarmed black teenager.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said City Council members are familiar with Freeman’s drill team, which has performed at parades, homecomings and city events like Let’s Get Connected Day. Blackwell asked interim City Manager John Sofley to find a place for the drill team to practice.
Emily Perry also expressed concern about what she called the Salvation Army’s sole proprietorship of Miller Rec. After-school programs should be opened up to other agencies and organizations, she said.
Perry and Deedee Wright, who also spoke, said they could find only two city-run programs operating in Miller Rec out of 13 listed on the website.
“That is a shame,” Perry said.
Wright said she could not get an answer from city officials about how the Salvation Army got a contract to operate at Miller Rec and why other church-based organizations with programs aimed at helping youth did not have the same chance.
“There is something going on sinister in this city or dumb, one or the other,” Wright said.
The city contracted with the Salvation Army under former City Manager Doug Paris. The arrangement was never presented to City Council.
Paris left his job June 17 after a nearly five-hour closed session with City Council. No one will say why he left.
Blackwell said she and Mayor Paul Woodson recently met for two hours with 12 members of the West End community about their concerns regarding Miller Rec. The residents listed problems, questions and proposed resolutions, and Blackwell said she will reconvene the group by the end of September to come up with a plan.
None of the speakers Tuesday night was in that group of 12, which led to a gap in communication, she said.
The Salvation Army approached the city about offering recreation programs in the West End, Blackwell said. The city actually saved money by contracting with the Salvation Army, and the partnership freed up city staff for other duties, she said.
There has been a misunderstanding about the arrangement, Blackwell said.
“The Salvation Army didn’t take over Miller Center, and we didn’t give it to them,” she said.
Youth who are not part of a Salvation Army program and organizations like the Salisbury Drill Team can no longer use the facility.
Perry also expressed concern that four African Americans were fired from the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“Those people have such a close relationship with the community and with our children,” Perry said. “We need to take a good look at what is going on.”
She also called for an investigation of the city’s Human Resources Department, which she said has questionable hiring practices and treats some employees poorly.
“I continue to hear over and over again about complaints of harassment, mistreatment, suspensions and resignations on behalf of numerous employees,” Perry said.
Wright said the city lacks diversity among employees and the Police Department continues to lose police officers to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office.
“We train them, and Sheriff Auten takes them,” she said.
William Peoples, a longtime critic of the city, said City Council needs to listen to residents and investigate their complaints.
“Are you really listening to the people when they come up here and talk to you?” Peoples said. “Or does it take something like what’s going on in Missouri for you to open your eyes and see that, hey, we need to have a real dialogue. We need to talk to people, we need to let them vent.”
Peoples talked about the “fiasco that’s happening in the city,” including the mysterious departures of Paris and former Public Information Director Elaney Hasselmann and the nearly quarter of a million dollars in severances the city has paid.
“It’s going to be just like a boil,” he said. “And one day it’s going to erupt.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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