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Bridging the gaps in Marion's credibility

Richard Nixon had his 18½-minute gap. Now, it seems, Marion has its own a 7½-minute gap.

In an official recording of a city council meeting March 6, the first 7 minutes 28 seconds are silent.

Police officer Zach Hudlin, who for some reason is tasked with recording meetings, swears it was an accident. And it probably was.

Still, it’s odd that the missing 7 minutes 28 seconds included the entirety of council member Ruth Herbel’s questioning of Mayor David Mayfield about his unclear legalauthority to hand out raises to four employees the same day the council met in January without asking or even telling other council members.

Odder still is that the audio picks up at the precise moment when Mayfield began to counter-attack and accuse Herbel of somehow sinning by contacting a city employee’s wife to ask about city pay.

Marion often is divided between those who see the glass as half full and those who see it as half empty. A main reason is that the city often employs so much secrecy that the public gets only peephole glimpses into what’s going on. If you’re allowed to see only the full or empty portion of a glass, it’s easy to become polarized. And the best way to degauss such political magnetism is to keep as much as possible in open and honest public view.

Was it merely to save space — or, as she said, to do as she was told — when city jack-of-all-trades Margo Yates printed in a city newsletter just the first part of a proposed ordinance, leaving out the part that could be used to take away the public’s right to vote on bond issues?

Were the raises Mayfield handed out — including one to the person who shot the gapped video—a common courtesy or an attempt to buy loyalty?

When he interceded in negotiations with the sheriff’s department over a drug-sniffing dog, was he merely facilitating prompt action or knowingly violating city ethics rules because he also is an employee of the sheriff’s department?

The speed with which items are considered by the council also is an issue. Monday, a contract dated two full weeks earlier didn’t show up in council members’ packets and wasn’t given to them until scant hours before the meeting.

It calls for spending up to $10,000 for up to 100 hours of work at $100 an hour for the city’s former city clerk to train her replacement and two other office employees who just got big raises, putting them on par with or significantly above the newly hired clerk’s pay.

Raises tend to be given in recognition of achievement. Training tends to be given in recognition of deficiency. How can both exist at the same time, and why did not one soul on the council question why the contract was dated two weeks before the council saw it at the last minute?

At the meeting, it also was announced that only one person had applied for a council vacancy. We suspect Kevin Burkholder will do a fine job filling that vacancy, but did you know that a second person applied? The only difference is that he applied directly to another council member instead of to the mayor, who has no special powers to nominate.

Council member Jerry Kline tried to bring up the nomination and to suggest that the other candidate, who has a long history of civic involvement and who finished next in line at the most recent city election, deserved consideration as well. But a quick snipe from another council member shut him up before he could fully explain that the city had adopted a tradition of filling vacancies by going back to runners-up, as it did when filling Todd Heitschmidt’s council vacancy when he stepped up to mayor and Chad Atkin’s council vacancy when he moved out of state.

We were heartened to hear Mayfield speak on Monday of a need for the council to be trained in provisions of open meetings and open records acts. We wish we hadn’t had to file a formal complaint with the attorney general before that willingness was expressed.

Now we learn that the city has so botched its various charter ordinances that the mayor may not legally have a right to vote on most council matters, that a legal leap of faith was needed to be able to fill the council vacancy, and that pay for key officials — including one of those to whom Mayfield unilaterally gave a raise — may have to be set by published ordinance, approved by a majority of the council.

Much of Marion’s problems began when it hired Mayfield as administrator and switched to a unique mayor-council government. In sharp contrast to American separation of powers and unlike almost any other public officials in the nation, Marion’s mayor exercises both executive and legislative authority.

This may help explain the increasing secrecy of city operations — late arrival of complicated agreements to consider, multiple secret sessions illegally called, stalling and exorbitant fees for open records requests, even moving citizen comment to occur only after council members already have decided whatever issues citizens might have wanted to comment on.

Marion needs to clarify city authority so we don’t have one mayor, Mary Olson, whose attempts to exert modest executive power were rebuffed while others, like Todd Heitschmidt and Mayfield, seem intent on taking an expansive view of what executive powers they have.

We also need to adopt a more open approach that restores citizen comment at a time in meetings when it will do some good, treats openness as a goal to be exceeded rather than an obligation to be barely met, and encourages council discussion by taking action, except in emergencies, not at the first meeting when something is discussed but at the next meeting afterward, so council members and the public can reflect on proposals rather than just shovel them through, as they apparently did with various charter ordinances.

Bridging the divide between the public and those elected to be public servants means treating service less as an ego trip to be made efficient and more as an opportunity to enlist everyone in working together toward the city’s future by giving them information and voice in city decision making. Otherwise, the next gap Marion feels will be in its ability to secure the future we all hope it can achieve.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified March 22, 2023

 

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