Bonifay mayor, residents continue to argue over financial transparency during City Council meetings

A man standing at the top of a podium.Bonifay resident Richard Willsey raises concerns over the city’s financial transparency practices during a City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 23. Residents and councilmembers have argued over transparency and ethics concerns during meetings. [COLLIN BREAUX | The News and Advertiser]

Tensions have continued to publicly flare between Bonifay Mayor Larry Cook and town residents. 

Larry Cook and resident Richard Willsey argued during a City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 23, over a public records request filed regarding a pancake fundraiser breakfast for the Bonifay Fire-Rescue, a volunteer organization.

‘Why would you want to know what the fire department pancake fundraiser brought in?’ Larry Cook said. ‘What are you getting at? I have 20 guys that wake up at four in the morning and they cook pancakes and they work their butts off and you want to know how much money they made. What is wrong with you?’

‘The people would like to know where the money has been applied to for the budget,’ Willsey said. ‘I am in no way opposed to the fire department. … Every dollar raised in contributions is required to be documented as received and where it is allocated to be spent.’

A man standing at the top of a podium.
Bonifay resident Richard Willsey raises concerns over the city’s financial transparency practices during a City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 23. Residents and councilmembers have argued over transparency and ethics concerns during meetings. [COLLIN BREAUX | The News and Advertiser]

‘Why is it that the fundraiser for the Bonifay fire department isn’t accounted for by the city? Is there a secret bank account for the fire department to use for whatever they choose?’ Willsey continued. ‘Where is the accountability for this and who is overseeing this? Sounds like another case of the good old boys just taking care of the good old boys.’

Fire Chief Travis Cook said he has been the treasurer for the fire department’s account since 2005, where all fundraiser money goes to and expenses come out of.

‘It is also audited. It is a city account,’ Travis Cook said. ‘We’ve never had any accounting practice issues or violations.’

Travis Cook said he was notified of the public records request and responded the same day he received it.

‘Like I said in previous meetings, if you need any fire department information, there’s no need to go to a public records request. I can get you that information,’ Travis Cook said. ‘This was our largest fundraiser for the year. This was year 19, so we expect year 20 to be bigger. We were very happy with the turnout of everybody that showed up. The total received on that Saturday was $8576.02.’ 

Willsey further said he filed public records requests regarding the city’s public procurement policy. The policy states that formal bids were only required if repairs or vehicle services exceed $10,000, which would require City Council approval. Purchases over $1500 but less than $10,000 require Council approval but not a formal bid. 

The city also participates in a state bid purchasing program for vehicles and tires, meaning they can utilize statewide bidders at the same price if they have items out for bid 

‘In November of 2022, there were six tires purchased for the fire department at $1210 a piece,’ Willsey said. ‘There’s a state contractor with the same tire for $806 a piece. Sounds like a little bit of a discrepancy there.’

The tires were purchased due to an ’emergency,’ Larry Cook said.

‘One (blew out) and they were 12 years old,’ Larry Cook said. ‘We had one fire truck. It needed a set of tires. It had a blowout. We put a set of tires on. I marked the tires up $50 a piece. I had them on the next day.’ 

Councilmember James Sellers said Willsey wouldn’t ‘give a damn if we follow the policy or not’ if his house caught on fire.

‘If your house catches on fire tonight, they’re going to fight just as hard for you as they do for anybody else,’ Sellers said. ‘I am sick and tired of you. I don’t think you have anything to do. You do nothing but cause problems.’ 

The city should utilize ‘the proper purchasing and procurement policy’ and ‘utilize the state bidding process whenever possible,’ Willsey said.

‘You complained about not having enough money to fund the city and impose a 3-mill tax on the city residents to pay for things that you couldn’t afford to pay for but if you utilized the procurement policy and the state bid contractors, maybe you could save a little bit of money that would have helped save the citizens of this town a little bit of money,’ Willsey said.

Larry Cook has come under public criticism and scrutiny following the termination of former Police Chief Jimmy Macon and resignation of former Mayor Dr. Emily McCann, with some residents calling on Cook to resign. 

Larry Cook said the City Council was ‘getting tired of the accusations.’

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