When they hired Rochelle Small-Toney as city manager in 2017, Rocky Mount officials knew that the Savannah, Ga., city council had asked her to resign from the same post in 2012 after controversies involving employment and management practices. The local officials believed the Georgia allegations were politically motivated, while Small-Toney’s abilities and track record stood out among five finalists, Rocky Mount Mayor David Combs says.
Nearly two years later, Small-Toney’s actions in the city 60 miles east of Raleigh have made her a lightning rod for critics, who say she is making unwise financial moves and hiring decisions. About a half-dozen department heads and senior city officials, including two assistant city managers, have departed since her arrival. It’s a distraction for the city that is rebuilding its economy after losing various corporate offices and plants over the last two decades.
Combs recently presided over a packed public hearing that he says was equally divided between criticism and support for the city manager, a Wilmington native who was the first African-American to play women’s varsity basketball at UNC Chapel Hill. Rocky Mount has “chosen to bring in an independent consultant to evaluate whether the issues are facts, and, if so, [whether] some are clearly within her role as city manager,” he says. Issues under examination include “employee morale, hiring practices, the turnover of employees, those kinds of things.” The report is due back in four to six weeks.
Small-Toney drew ire last year for spending nearly $90,000 on an office makeover without alerting the city council. In January, she recruited Selma Town Manager Elton Daniels to head the city’s parks and recreation department at an annual salary of $130,000. Daniels’ predecessor received $90,000 a year.
Small-Toney’s previous post was as a deputy city manager in Fayetteville. She was hired by Rocky Mount in July 2017 at an annual salary of $175,000. Chapel Hill-based Developmental Associates LLC assisted city officials, providing the five highest-ranked candidates, including Small-Toney. “We’ve used them in the past and been well-satisfied,” Combs says. “They do a good job at the end of the day.”
In recent weeks, Small-Toney has helped promote Rocky Mount’s effort to attract the headquarters of the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, which is seeking a new site due to health and safety concerns at its current buildings near downtown Raleigh. A proposal to house about 400 DMV employees at the former Hardee’s headquarters building in Rocky Mount was the lowest-cost option among potential sites. But the 55,000-member State Employees Association and all 16 Wake County legislators oppose the move, saying it is too disruptive for existing employees.
Small-Toney declined to comment on criticism of her work.