Balance of power shifts from mayor to council
By James Tilson
The city council, led by Councilman Kevin Stallings, is exerting its authority over day-to-day operations at the expense of mayor’s office.
The change has come to light with the recent “restructuring” of the city administration, including the hiring of an employee to fill a new position titled, according to an organizational chart issued last week, “temporary administrative support to mayor and city council.”
At a special work meeting last Thursday, Aug. 30, council members explained the changes are necessary to deal with the “emergency” created by the resignations of Mayor Sandra Bigler and Sam Draper, director of public works.
But change has been bubbling in the background for many months.
When asked about the assertions by several people in city government or those who have left city government that Stallings is the real force behind the change, he contended other council members have had influence too.
“Everybody thinks I’m trying to run the town,” he said in Tuesday in an interview. “I’m one who believes in councils. If we’re not united, we need to work out the details to where we are united.”
According to a source in city government who asked not to be named, the idea of restructuring the city started being tossed around in 2017, about the time when Bigler was appointed mayor following David Blackham’s resignation.
The moves were apparently a reaction to the belief by some council members that Mayor Blackham was becoming “too powerful,” according to the source.
In November, Bigler ran for and was elected mayor. She took office in January, 2018. Around March and April of 2018, the council began having serious discussions about restructuring.
At about the same time, Bigler began shuttling more personnel responsibilities to Jane Banks, the city recorder at the time. (She later resigned). This was consistent with an ordinance enacted in 2005, the last ordinance addressing city organization and an ordinance still on the books. The ordinance puts the recorder in charge of personnel issues and makes him or her second in command when the mayor is not available.
During this period, largely in response to input from the city council, Bigler continued to exercise overall executive authority but also began delegating authority to others.
In April, the council announced a “public use facilities working supervisor” position opening. The job was advertised in the Pyramid, Pyramid Shopper or both.
In May, five candidates were interviewed by Stallings, Councilman Keith Collier and Dave Oxman, the city finance director. Due to scheduling conflicts, Draper, the public works director, was only able to sit in on one interview. Lynn Beesley, who had been a farmer and miner, was hired and began work on June 12.
Bigler was not involved in the interviews. “Sandra delegated that,” Stallings said. “Sandra delegated a lot of authority.”
During the summer, Bigler continued to work with the council and even began to instruct city department heads and staff to report to council members, who by then were assuming administrative leadership over various departments.
For example, Stallings was in charge of economic development and started co-managing the public works department with Councilman Justin Atkinson. Councilman Dan Anderson took charge of the power department. Councilwoman Heidi Kelso started overseeing the library.
Mayor Bigler took charge of the city recorder, city treasurer, city hall office staff, the police department, fire department and cemetery.
She made it clear that she was willing to cooperate with the council’s desire to be more involved with the city’s administration, but only so long as the official, legal administrative power remained with her. In accordance with state law, the 2005 ordinance and past practice, she expected to remain as CEO.
A conflict developed when Draper refused to report to council members overseeing the public works department and insisted on reporting to the mayor.
The conflict came to a head when a chemical spill occurred and a city employee was injured. According to a source knowledgeable about the incident, Stallings confronted Draper, and Draper resigned. Draper referenced the incident in his resignation letter and seemed to lay at least some of the blame on Lynn Beesley, the new public facilities supervisor, although it is unclear what involvement he had in the incident.
Stallings denies that any conflict ever existed between Draper and him, or between Draper and the council. He said of Draper’s resignation, “It caught us totally by surprise….We held a special meeting to decide how to move forward on that.”
By August, the council appeared to be moving toward making the dual structure of government permanent, including the possibility of passing an ordinance. That was further than Bigler wanted the council’s power to go. She resigned rather than continue on as a figurehead.
Utah statutes 10-3b-104 and 10-3b-303, which talk about the forms of government available to municipalities, make clear that in fifth-class cities like Mt. Pleasant (cities with populations of 1,000 to 10,000), the mayor is a member of a six-member city council and the city executive.
As such, the mayor may appoint a council member or any other person to head a department or function. But the person would still report to the mayor.
The council of such a municipality also has the option of shifting executive power from the mayor to a city manager (who would then report to the council). But the council may only do after drafting an ordinance containing the city manager’s job description and after passing the ordinance. Typically, a public hearing is also held.
The Utah League of Cities and Towns (ULCT) Manual for Elected Officials refers to this statutory section when it states, “To protect the mayors from precipitous and arbitrary actions from their enemies on the council, any ordinance that removes from or reinstates to the mayor a power, duty, or function requires the affirmative vote of the mayor and a majority of all other council members or all council members except the mayor. In other words, the mayor either has to consent to being neutered or not have any friends left on the council.”
The Mt Pleasant City Council has neither drafted nor passed such an ordinance.
Currently, the city is accepting applications for interim mayor with a deadline of Sept. 18. The council will make its decision on who to appoint on Sept. 25.
Councilman Dan Anderson, who has been appointed mayor pro tem until Sept. 25 has said he will apply for the interim position.
Last Thursday, the city council held a “special work meeting” for city employees to discuss the “city restructure.” That was when the council passed out the proposed organization chart and announced the temporary support position.
Sources in city hall said, and Stallings appeared to confirm, that the temporary position was a step toward appointment of a permanent city administrator.
Before she resigned, Bigler opposed bringing on a city administrator or city manager because she said Mt. Pleasant couldn’t afford the position, and since she, in collaboration with the council, was willing to run the city on a volunteer basis, the position wasn’t needed.
According to the org chart, the temporary administrator would have authority over all city functions except for public safety.
Based on advice from legal counsel, Stallings said, the city council determined it did not need to advertise the position because it was an “emergency” and temporary appointment.
But the UCLT manual states, “A city or town is required to post all job openings on a state website maintained by the Department of Work Force Services. The only exception to this is for a job being filled by an existing employee…”
On Tuesday, Stallings confirmed that the temporary administrator will be Paul Madsen, a retired contractor and a friend of his, although the councilman said, “I consider a lot of people my friend.”
During the special work meeting, Stallings said Madsen would earn $30 an hour, with no benefits, for “only the hours necessary.” He said Madsen had extensive experience in contracting. “His office will be in the city hall, but his responsibilities will be in the field,” Stallings said.
Stallings added that while the job is temporary, the experience gained from the hire would inform the council’s and mayor’s decisions on the responsibilities of a potential permanent position.
Stallings said the eventual city administrator needs to know how to negotiate work contracts and see they are carried out. This was important because a mayor may not have that experience.
Councilman Atkinson added that having a city administrator would help the council be less involved with day-to-day functioning of the city, putting some distance between the administration and the council.
In an interview Tuesday, Stallings said that in filling the temporary administrator position, the council researched available candidates and considered several nominations. He said Madsen came “highly recommended” and was available immediately. And he added, “You don’t find someone with his experience and willingness to work” very often.
Stalling also addressed criticism of him growing out of the resignations of Bigler and Draper. “I have tried to be honest with everyone. I have a clear conscious. I’m prepared [if this matter goes to litigation]. It’ll bring out the real truth. We’re not backing down from what we know is right.”
The city council will meet again on Sept. 11 and Stalling expects a crowd. He hopes by then to have a written statement from the council explaining recent actions. “I’m just looking forward to when we can give everyone the information,” he said.