NEWS ANALYSIS: Mt. Pleasant Council must rebuild trust in face of conflicts that have simmered for years
By James Tilson
Editor’s Note: James Tilson has been covering the city of Mt. Pleasant, including nearly all city council meetings, for more than two years. In this article, he reports his findings and gives his insight into a conflict between the city council and the executive branch of city government that has been churning during most of the time he has been reporting. Ordinarily, the Sanpete Messenger does not mix news and opinion in articles appearing on news pages, but we feel Tilson’s views of what has been happening merit this news analysis.
MT. PLEASANT—The recent drama playing out in public view in Mt. Pleasant city government points to a deeper conflict that has been bubbling just out of view for several years.
The city council can solve these issues and heal the rifts within the city—if it accepts responsibility for the conflicts and works to rebuild the trust of city workers and residents.
One city official’s resignation from office is unusual. Five elected officials or key managers resigning in a little more than one year is alarming.
Mayor David Blackham resigned his office on June 1, 2017. In March of this year, Jane Banks resigned as city recorder. In August, Mayor Sandra Bigler and Sam Draper, public works director, resigned from their posts. And then in September, Laurie Hansen, library director, submitted her resignation.
Such an exodus of experience and talent got the attention of residents and triggered some blowback.
The fallout included recriminations and allegations by people who blamed the city council for the resignations. Some of the blamers were people who had resigned. The allegations included overreaching by the council into the executive responsibilities of the mayor, and financial misconduct by council members Kevin Stallings and Justin Atkinson.
In turn, council members, both individually and as a group, made statements defending their actions and attacking their accusers.
From meetings and public records, this reporter cannot tell the truth of some of the allegations. For example, Draper placed the blame for his resignation on the council. He said in his resignation letter the council had meddled in the day-to-day administration and had hired an unqualified employee, leading to a dangerous situation.
The council has answered that Draper himself has been cited by OSHA and by the county for multiple safety violations. Council members say Draper was an inefficient administrator as evidenced by increased productivity since Paul Madsen, a city council appointee, has begun working with the public works crews.
At this point, this writer has not seen enough evidence to completely validate either side.
On the other hand, the claims by former Mayor Blackham and others that Councilman Kevin Stallings and Councilman Justin Atkinson have steered work to their companies are unfounded.
As the Messenger reported last week, after a careful analysis of public records and interviews, the paper found no evidence of misconduct by either Atkinson or Stallings.
The remaining persons who resigned have been reticent about making any public statements. Former Mayor Bigler has only stated that the council’s actions made it impossible for her to execute her duties as mayor the way she felt she had been elected to execute them. Neither Banks nor Hansen made any public statement at all.
However, the resignation of so many city employees and officers cannot be ignored. This reporter, who has followed Mt.. Pleasant city government and attended nearly all city council meetings for more than two years, has looked deeper into the conflict to see whether it is more than just a “clash of personalities.”
The legality of the city’s new hires must be addressed before we can look at the larger issues facing the city. A lot of criticism has been aired over the hiring of Lynn Beesely and Paul Madsen earlier this year.
Beesely’s hire was made after proper posting and an interview process, which was in the usual course of business and supported by then Mayor Bigler. Nothing in his hiring is out of place.
The hiring of Madsen is a more difficult case. A “temporary administrative support” position filled without a posting or interview process is outside the statutory guidelines.
Councilman Stallings has asserted that the city received a legal opinion from an attorney with the Utah League of Cities and Towns saying that the city was facing an “emergency” that allowed for an exception to the statutes.
This reporter, a former attorney himself, does not think the council’s position will be challenged in court, and is quite dubious of such a lawsuit’s chances to prevail.
The larger issue facing Mt. Pleasant, and indeed all of Sanpete County and Utah as a whole, is growth. Mt.. Pleasant is growing, and will continue to grow.
Utah and Salt Lake counties are running out of room, and new housing starts in Sanpete County have broken records in the past year. The northern part of the county will feel the effects of this growth before the rest of the county—and already is feeling those effects.
Mt. Pleasant may or may not need full-time management yet, but it is at the very least on the cusp of needing it. There is no doubt the city will need it in the not too distant future.
The council’s concerns about growth have been simmering for years. The issues have been obvious to everyone that lives in the city. Road repair has often lagged behind. City buildings have been difficult to maintain. More businesses and more houses have been, and will continue to come to Mt. Pleasant. And more businesses and houses mean more demand for city services.
These concerns are legitimate and valid. They need to be addressed, and the council is right to act on these concerns.
But it is the manner in which the council has acted that has led to the drama in the city government.
First, the “less-than-open” process with which the council made its decision to hire new employees has engendered suspicion.
Councilman Keith Collier hinted at the council’s frustration at the council’s last meeting. He said the council needed more work meetings in which to hash out the details of agenda items they would be voting on during the regular council meetings.
This writer believes open work meetings would go a long way toward bringing deliberations out into the open and building back trust among residents.
Second, when council members began responding to criticisms personally, such as the statement singling out former Mayor Blackham and Sam Draper, the former public works director, they inserted themselves into the drama instead of dampening it.
At a packed council meeting where scores of residents showed up to criticize the council, or at least to find out what was going on, the council did not assure citizens that their concerns would be addressed. Instead, they made themselves out to be the victims and sought to defend themselves.
The council can heal these rifts and move forward. But it needs to make a few notable changes.
First, council members must stop defending themselves (regardless of the merit), accept responsibility for the crisis and promise to make things better.
For better or worse, with resignation of the mayor and until a new mayor is elected, the council is in charge. And it was their actions that led to this situation.
This writer believes the council has valid concerns and was justified in acting to address those concerns. All the same, those actions led to the resignation of several city employees. Acting as if criticism of their actions is unfair will not make things better.
Next, if the council decides to go ahead and hire a permanent city manager, the council must “toe the line” in its procedure and be extra open to the residents about how and why it is doing so. It must do this to rebuild trust among citizens.
Most of all, the council must get results. The road situation must improve. Repairs have to be done more efficiently. And needs arising from population growth must be addressed. If council members get results, that will cure all.