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The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Ask Mayor Miller: Red flags in Community Enhancement Authority management

Miller says missed audits, suspicious accounting led to temporary closure of Little Richard House, explains cybersecurity in wake of breach, discusses school criticism

Mayor Lester Miller said Macon-Bibb County will make sure the Little Richard House permanently reopens after withholding funds from Community Enhancement Authority which recently closed the community center and tourist attraction in Pleasant Hill. (4:00 into video)

During this month’s taping of the Ask Mayor Miller program, he explained that warning signs and lack of financial audits led to the “tough decision” to halt CEA funds, and discussed other topics including extra cybersecurity measures after the recent breach (1:13), the Georgia Board of Education’s scolding of Superintendent Dan Sims, the system’s failing schools and budget issues (7:50). 

Miller responded to a Macon Newsroom investigation that showed the authority, which was founded to ease poverty in Pleasant Hill, conducted business for years without oversight, audits or financial reporting. 

Miller said that the county initially cut the CEA some slack after accounting firms were trying to catch up from the COVID-19 pandemic, but now wants outside investigations after fielding “too many complaints to ignore” from the neighborhood. 

“Certainly, I think there’s some co-mingling (of funds) that was going on. If you go to the simple tax records there, the property records, you can see there’s a lot of property going in and out of hands of people that are closely associated with that, which always draws a red flag. Doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something going on there, but I suspect that there will be something that we find after an audit. Most people want to do an audit to show that they’re clean, how well they’re doing to get continued funding. Sometimes when you avoid an audit situation, that’s a red flag saying that something’s wrong here. And I think in this particular situation, things are not going to really add up like they’re supposed to.”


Macon-Bibb County’s new continuous cybersecurity monitoring was in the works before a reported breach May 11, but the incident made it a priority, Miller said. 

On June 18, Commissioners approved a $132,400 annual contract with Kroll Associates to protect the county’s information technology, communications and computers from terrorist attacks or other threats.

The surveillance operation depends on a “lack of general public knowledge” to maximize effectiveness, so details are exempt from public disclosure under the Open Records Act, according to the resolution. 

The section of Georgia Code cited in the resolution allows for exemptions of “records the disclosure of which would compromise security against sabotage or criminal or terrorist acts and the nondisclosure of which is necessary for the protection of life, safety, or public property, which shall be limited to the following… Any document or plan for protection relating to the existence, nature, location, or function of cybersecurity devices, programs, or systems designed to protect computer, information technology, or communication systems against terrorist or other attacks that depend for their effectiveness in whole or in part upon a lack of general public knowledge… .” 

The information is so secret, the clerk has been instructed to enter two versions into the official minutes — a legally redacted copy for public review and the unredacted version that will only be accessible to elected officials, county administration, key staff and contractors who have a need to know. 

Over the past seven weeks, Miller made few public comments about the recent attack, but said the county learned what to do from best practices from across the country.

At the Commission meeting, County Manager Keith Moffett described it as a “proactive security monitoring system for our entire network” that the insurance broker recommended they immediately put in place after the breach. Previously, Cisco was flagging suspicious activity, but someone had to be on the computer in order to see the warning, Moffett said. 

Going forward, Kroll will take immediate protective measures and alert the county about the next steps.

When it came time to discuss the contract, Miller carefully chose his words.  

“This is a, what do I say?” he asked, looking at Interim County Attorney Duke Groover before continuing. “This is a subject we don’t need to have much discussion about out front.” 

Commissioner Virgil Watkins said he was “going to go as close as Duke will allow me” to inquire about the status of the disruption that crippled county communications, computer networks and searchable databases.

“Are the systems of Macon-Bibb 100% online, normal and functioning back to its original level of privacy?” Watkins asked.  

“Be careful about it,” Miller cautioned, as Moffett searched for words before Groover spoke up. 

“I mean, we’ve  had a cybersecurity attack, and part of what they look for is vulnerability, including public statements about the state of your system,” Groover said, shutting down discussion in open session.

Some online county resources remain inaccessible. 

During the television taping at 13WMAZ, Miller said the county was “very comfortable” in the situation it’s in right now. 

“We’re still day-by-day, but everything appears to be working properly and smoothly now,” he said. 

Moffett is serving as interim IT director as the county looks to fill continual vacancies in that department. 

“It is very competitive,” the mayor said. “A lot of times private companies can pay more than a local government can pay, so it’s difficult to get people to stay with you for a long period of time.”

Miller said the IT director left “shortly before the situation we had, but certainly not tied to our problems that we had there.”

State criticism of Bibb school system

While Miller previously shared his displeasure that the Bibb County School Board is contemplating a tax increase, the former three-time school board president recognized the tough situation the system faces. 

“But at the same time, I’m always worried that people, when they have financial difficulties, especially any government agency, that the first inclination is always to run right to raising their taxes. I think that’s a mistake,” he said. 

After the departure of disgraced superintendent Romaine Dallemand, Miller’s board of education froze travel spending and positions, enacted a reduction in force and coordinated bus schedules. 

“You’ve got to be able to foresee those problems, anticipate those and make the cuts so you don’t have to raise the taxes,” he said. 

After The Macon Newsroom’s Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley broke the news of the State Board of Education’s criticism of the Bibb School District and its Superintendent Dan Sims concerning an increase in failing schools, Miller said he watched the meeting video. 

“It was not the best shining point for the Bibb County School System on that particular occasion but it’s something that we’ve got to be concerned about. It shows that we’re in some areas (regressing), and I’m not sure what’s happening there for the school system. So, hopefully they can get a handle on that and we can continue to focus on those gains that we’ve had over the last several years, “ he said.   

Other topics discussed

Miller also discussed budget priorities (0:13), road work (10:17), Rosa Parks Square funding (3:13), the pending demolition of Lowe Aviation and the FAA’s building at Middle Georgia Regional Airport to make way for the guitar shaped, music themed new terminal for private aircraft (14:06), summer at the amphitheater (18:00), and Macon’s growing tourism opportunities (15:25). 

Send your questions for next month’s Ask Mayor Miller to [email protected] 

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities for The Macon Newsroom of the Murphy Center for Collaborative Journalism and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.

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