Lane Street Project: pulling back the curtain at City Hall, part 1.

Yesterday I received a partial response to my April 11 and April 26 public records requests to the City of Wilson. Its contents reveal a dismaying attempt by the City to dodge responsibility for further action at Vick, to back-burner and stall, to … well, whistle past the graveyard.

I’ll say it again: Vick Cemetery descendants demand accountability, transparency, and action. This is not 1996. But some city leaders have not gotten that message.

So that we all have as clear as possible an understanding of what has happened since New South Associates (N.S.A.) conducted its ground-penetrating radar survey, I have created a timeline drawn from emails the City provided in partial response to my requests. (The highlighted portions of text reflect my own emphasis. I will add commentary in a follow-up post.)

First, the City of Wilson’s cast of characters:

  • Rebecca Agner, Communications & Marketing Director
  • Joe Ausby, GIS Manager
  • Will Aycock, Greenlight General Manager
  • Bill Bass, Public Works Director
  • Grant Goings, City Manager
  • Rodger Lentz, Chief Planning & Development Officer
  • Carlton Stevens, Mayor

N.S.A. conducted its survey in June-July 2022.

July 5, 11:28 A.M. — N.S.A. informs Bill Bass that a Wilson Times reporter has sought an interview with the company. Four minutes later, Bass loops in Rebecca Agner. At 11:41, a different N.S.A. representative copies Bass and Agner in an email reporting that “the data is still being processed however it is at a point where I could make some pretty generalized statements with confidence. Just from processing the data I can say that the graves are showing up very clearly in the data. There is also a high density of graves (which wasn’t unexpected). You can also see some evidence of ground disturbance in some of the grids which is likely from the earthworks that took place in the 1990s.”

July 7, 5:10 P.M. — Agner emails Bill Bass and Rodger Lentz to report on an interview between a Times reporter and two N.S.A. representatives. She says that when the reporter asked for “high-level findings,” N.S.A. said they could only say “it looked like thousands of graves and it was a well-populated cemetery” and that their report would be available in a couple of months. Agner says the reporter “asked for a quote from the city, which I don’t think I should provide. I’m not sure if any other staff member would want to comment — he wanted something about how the city if [sic; is] committed to the process, but I think this was a City Council driven project.” Agner notes she asked N.S.A. if they would present the report to City Council, and N.S.A. said “it was customary with high-engagement projects. Just passing that along if we want to go that route once they are done.”

At 5:39 P.M., Lentz responds:

At 5:49 P.M., Agner responded:

September 9, 4:18 P.M. — N.S.A. emails Bass: “I am attaching the download link for our draft GPR report. Please let me know if you have any questions.”

September 16, 3:38 P.M. — N.S.A. emails Bass again and asks him to confirm receipt of the report.

October 12, 10:44 A.M. — N.S.A. emails Bass and Carlton Stevens and asks if they have received the report as she has not heard from them. She sends an updated download link. At 10:49 A.M., Bass responds that he did not receive the earlier emails.

October 24, 10:58 A.M. — A Times reporter emails Agner and asks if the City has received N.S.A.’s report.

October 29, 10:22 A.M. — Agner responds that she will check on it. On October 31 at 1:10 P.M., in response to a follow-up query from the reporter, Agner says, “I’ll be back in touch asap.”

November 1, 9:28 A.M. — Bill Bass emails Grant Goings: “I have reviewed the report, seems to be straight forward.”

November 1, 2:14, 2:38 and 2:39 P.M. — N.S.A. emails Bass and Stevens, informing them that the previous email containing shape files was blocked due to the attachment and stating it would be resent via a Google Drive link. She asks if they “need any additional text changes in the draft.” A minute later, N.S.A. resends the report via email zip file to Bass and Stevens.

November 2, 8:10 A.M. — Bass forwards the file to Joe Ausby, stating “Please make sure this is something we can use, I would like to have this in a cemetery layer.” [A layer is a collection of geographic data.]

November 4, 4:03 P.M. — Ausby replies that “we will absolutely pull this into a cemetery layer and have it ready shortly for the city.”

[The City provided no responsive records for the period between November 4, 2022, and January 20, 2023.]

January 20, 2023, 12:24 P.M. — The reporter again emails Agner about the report. This email appears to have been ignored.

March 13, 3:48 P.M. — The reporter emails Agner: “I am still interested in finding out what I can about arch repair at Maplewood Cemetery and also the Vick Cemetery ground penetrating radar report.”

At 3:51 P.M., Agner responds: “Oh yes, I’ll get back on those two. I know I have your questions on Maplewood. For Vick Cemetery, you wanted an update on where we are on the project, right? Anything else specific on that one?”

[I make a public records request for the ground-penetrating radar report on April 11, 2023. I receive a response with a copy of the report, marked as a draft, on April 18.]

April 18, 11:58 A.M. — Agner emails Goings and Lentz: “Several weeks ago newspaper asked about the status of the ground-penetrating radar survey for Vick Cemetery as a follow-up to their previous coverage. I received the report last week. Also last week Lisa Henderson sent a public records request to Tonya [West, City Clerk] for the report and other information related to Vick Cemetery. Tonya has sent the report to Lisa and I will be sending it to the newspaper today and will keep you informed on any follow-up questions.” Three minutes later, Goings shoots back: “If this has been distributed then we need to get it to Council ASAP.”

April 18, 2:38 P.M. — Agner emails the Times reporter to advise she has left him a copy of the report.

At 5:25 P.M., Agner sends Stevens and all council members a copy of the survey report.

At 5:27 P.M., Agner responds to the Times reporter that she received the report on April 14 and it was provided to City Council “today.” She says she will get back to him on the other questions.

April 19, 2:58 P.M. — The Times reporter emails Agner to ask for comment to be included in a story on the report. He poses these questions (Henderson, of course, is me):

At 3:49 P.M., Agner forwards the email to Grant Goings, Rodger Lentz, and Bill Bass, asking for assistance with the comment as she had only briefly skimmed the report.

At 4:30 P.M., Lentz replies: “Not sure about the others thoughts, my opinion is that this is the property of the cemetery commission who has authority and responsibility through status to consider all of those questions.”  Fifteen minutes later, Lentz added: “maybe we could use this statute to also answer the repeated letters to editor calling on council to something about alleged ‘mismanagement’. The commission, by law, has exclusive control of the cemeteries they own. They hire and fire the staff.”

Lentz includes this statutory language in the body of his email:

At 5:36 P.M., Grant Goings hits send on his one-word answer: “Yes!”

Meanwhile, at 3:52 P.M., the reporter sends Agner another email with these follow-up questions:

At 4:53 P.M., Agner writes Lentz, Goings, and Bass:

At 5:22 P.M., Agner asks Lentz, Goings, and Bass if the Cemetery Commission has the report. At 5:29 P.M., Goings replies: “I didn’t even know we had it so I assume not. Make sure we send tomorrow.”

April 20, 1:23 P.M. — Will Aycock emails Grant Goings and advises “It appears the consultant attempted to send the report in September but it was not received until October 12th when Bill confirmed receipt and asked for GIS files of the  data. The only other communication between October 12th and April 13th was Bill’s forward of the report to you on November 1st and the provision of the data files to GIS. It does not appear the report was sent to the Cemetery Commission via email. …”

At 3:17 P.M., Goings replies: “Thanks. I had no idea or memory.”

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