0508 CoMMA Smith resigns

Jim Smith, now the former director of CoMMA, speaks in front of the crowd at the auditorium on Saturday night.

The city of Morganton is on the search for a new director for its municipal auditorium.

W. Jim Smith, who had served as director of the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium since 2016, resigned Tuesday morning with immediate effect, according to a press release from the city.

The city’s release said that the search for a new CoMMA director will start immediately.

“The city thanks (Smith) for his service and for the past three years of success at CoMMA,” the release said. “The staff will continue to provide excellent service to all CoMMA patrons during this traditionally busy spring season.”

The resignation came after The News Herald reported in March that Smith had provided false credentials on his resume about having a doctoral degree and having completed his master's degree after questions were raised about an award he claimed CoMMA received. Smith later said he had “misrepresented” himself to the city.

The award in question was announced in a Dec. 21 release posted on the city’s website that said South Arts named CoMMA the most progressive theater in the southeast in October. But Ivan Schustak, director of communications and development for South Arts, told The News Herald that the group does not give out awards of any kind, including awards for most progressive theater.

Inquiries from News Herald reporters later revealed that the doctorate in worship leadership Smith claimed to have was issued by a “degree mill,” which typically is an unaccredited university selling fake degrees and transcripts, operating under the name Cosmopolitan University. One website listed an address for the school, but when the address was searched, it returned an address for a luxury condominium for sale in Miami Beach, Florida. A search of the U.S. Department of Education database of accredited universities revealed that Cosmopolitan is not an accredited institution.

Smith also claimed to have a master’s degree in Christian education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. But, according to Mark Foster in the school registrar’s office, Smith attended the school from 1998-2000 but never completed his master’s program.

References to Smith’s Dr. prefix were scrubbed from city websites after The News Herald began asking questions about his background.

And on March 13, Smith was suspended without pay for disciplinary reasons for his actions, according to the city. But Smith called The News Herald on the afternoon of March 13 from a CoMMA phone to set up an interview with the newspaper. He also sent emails to the newspaper on March 14 from his CoMMA email address, rather than a personal email address. The city said Smith was allowed to use his CoMMA phone and email address to contact The News Herald and city council members during his suspension.

On March 8, City Manager Sally Sandy said she was aware of the issue with the award. She said Smith received a card in the mail and, in his excitement, assumed the award notification was from South Arts because CoMMA often works with that group. She said no one questioned Smith at the time about the award because they took him at his word as a department head. She later questioned Smith about the award.

Sandy also said she had known about Smith’s lack of a doctoral degree “for quite some time.” She later confirmed through text message to a News Herald reporter that she had known since Smith was hired as CoMMA director that his alleged doctoral degree was from an unaccredited institution. But she said said she was not aware that Smith had never completed his master’s degree.

She also said the theology work Smith did had no relevance to what the city needed in a CoMMA director. She said neither a doctoral degree nor a master’s degree is required for the position. She said the degrees Smith claimed didn’t seem that critical.

The News Herald also asked Sandy why, if she knew Smith’s doctoral degree was not real, he was allowed to use the Dr. prefix for three years in city press releases, on the city website and on CoMMA’s social media. Sandy said allowing that was her mistake.

Sandy said she considered issues with Smith’s background to be a personnel issue, and told The News Herald it had been dealt with.

In a letter to the editor published in The News Herald earlier this month, Morganton Mayor Ronnie Thompson and the city council wrote that they were “extremely disappointed” that Smith lied about his educational attainments and degrees awarded. But the council went on to write that it was pleased with operations of CoMMA, noting that attendance and revenues were up and that the variety of community involvement was broader than ever. The council wrote it was plain to see that under Smith’s leadership, CoMMA met goals the council supported but that that did not excuse Smith’s admitted falsehoods concerning his educational credentials.

In an interview with The News Herald, Smith called the discrepancy on the purported award from South Arts an honest mistake. Smith said the doctoral program he did was similar to a correspondence course, and he participated in it for enrichment purposes. As for the master’s degree in Christian education from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Smith admitted he didn’t complete it.

Smith’s final yearly salary was $75,727.15, according to information from the city. He was hired as the executive director with a salary of $70,000. The current pay range has a minimum of $66,335, with a midpoint salary of $82,919 and a maximum salary of $99,503, the information said. Prior to being hired fulltime, Smith, 46, did crew labor work for CoMMA. Smith was paid between $8 and $10 an hour as a crew labor worker. Smith also provided piano and organ music on occasion at a rate of $75 per event.

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