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Of tirades and truth

Marion Mayor David Mayfield had his target. He had his script. He even had his own jeering section, including his wife, his former wife, his city-employee son, and even a minister.

What he didn’t have Monday night, when he lit into city council member Ruth Herbel, were the facts. Misleading implications and allegations, he had plenty of.

At issue was whether Herbel had violated something — propriety, trust, the law — by disclosing to taxpayers some of what led to the council’s 3-2 decision to fire city administrator Mark Skiles less than five months after hiring him.

The tirade that Mayfield read at the start of Monday night’s meeting never mentioned a key point: that taxpayers, who may have to pay as much as $75,000 to buy Skiles out of his contract, have a right to know why their money is being spent.

Skiles’s firing is the second costly dismissal they will have to pay for. Earlier this year, Marion-Florence school superintendent Aaron Homburg was dismissed after a similar series of secret meetings.

That dismissal cost taxpayers at least $62,000 and included a gag order forbidding both Homburg and the school board from ever explaining why.

At least when a sports team fires a coach, program supporters generally can understand why a buyout might have been worth it. In most cases, as with a progression of University of Kansas football coaches until the school found a keeper in Lance Leipold, details of why the coach was fired — such as allegations of sexual harassment by Les Miles — were disclosed as they should have been to those paying the bills.

Not only did Mayfield never mention the buyout, his wife — the only person who spoke from among a large group of spectators at the meeting — actually praised secrecy, extolling how the school board had hushed up everything about Homburg’s firing and praising its member with a misused word, saying they were “transparent.”

She and her husband both contended that Herbel accused city employees of lying in their litany of allegations against Skiles, who has a reputation for being a demanding boss. That drew audible support from the audience, especially the minister.

The problem is, she never did any such thing. Rather, she simply wanted to see first-hand the allegations against Skiles rather than have selected portions of them read to her by the mayor, who refused to release any documents to his fellow members of the governing body even though he has but one vote, just as each of them do.

She also questioned whether proper procedures were followed. Rather than going though appropriate channels, complaints against Skiles seemed to be relayed through one of her fellow council members, Zach Collett.

Rather than have the city attorney present to advise the council on the night of the firing, he was absent — not invited, he says, by the mayor.

Herbel isn’t the only council member who was concerned about the attorney not being present.

Council member Chris Costello — himself an attorney — refused to second Collett’s motion to fire Skiles, saying he wanted to hear from the city attorney first.

Mayfield, who personally made every single motion Monday night except the motion to adjourn, had to second the dismissal motion himself.

Collett’s motion itself was flawed, not specifying that the termination was for cause, thereby automatically activating the buyout provisions in Skiles’s contract.

Interestingly, nowhere during Mayfield’s tirade Monday did he ever accuse Herbel of getting any information wrong.

Whether she thinks Skiles should or should not have been fired really isn’t known. Her objections were entirely about how the firing occurred.

It isn’t as if Skiles didn’t deserve some sort of punishment. He allegedly — according to documents that Herbel recounted Mayfield reading from — used the “n-word” three times. Anyone working in any capacity anywhere should know better than that. Clearly, this merited a formal reprimand, perhaps an unpaid suspension, and a stern warning that any repeat would result in dismissal.

Skiles also was accused of showing what the mayor previously had described as “a pornographic video” and that his wife on Monday night termed “sexually explicit material” to a city employee.

The Record has obtained what sources indicate is a copy of that image. It’s not a video. It’s not pornographic. It’s not sexually explicit. To be sure, it’s provocative — not the type of thing you’d want to show kids. But it’s just a picture of a scantily clad woman no more revealing than what you might see in a “G”-rated movie or a run-of-the-mill TV sitcom. To be sure, there are far more provocative images on the websites of the local business person involved, who also has worked according to those sites as an adult film model. But this image wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps the biggest overreach of the evening was when the mayor read sections from what he described as the city’s handbook, implying that it somehow was law. It isn’t. It’s basically a handout from the League of Municipalities, which has absolutely no legal standing.

While it does say council members should avoid making public what is said behind closed doors, the main reason it offers is a technical one, about whether a council’s attorney-client privilege might be voided by disclosure. No attorney being present at the sessions immediately preceding Skiles’s firing meant no privilege could exist, so the concern would not be valid.

Moreover, the state attorney general — whose opinions do have legal weight — has repeatedly stated that nothing in the law prohibits any member of any council from disclosing what’s said in a closed-door session. That may be particularly true when closing the doors is a way of cutting citizens out of hearing what they have a right to know.

What was illegal, according to repeated rulings by the attorney general, was how the council called all the secret sessions in which it presented information about Skiles. State law clearly requires that more than just the justification for closing a meeting — that it dealt with personnel matters — is needed. Some clear, unambiguous statement about the topic of the meeting also is required. It never was.

State law never requires any meeting be conducted behind closed doors. It merely allows it, and clearly states that the burden of proof for the need to close a meeting rests with the council. Absent a clear topic and one of several very restrictive justifications, it is the policy of the state that all meetings should be open to the public at all times.

But what happened Monday night wasn’t about law or ethics or even the firing of the city administrator. It was about the mayor asserting power much as a common bully or, in political terms, a strongman such as Vladimir Putin attempts to do.

The rudeness of the mayor refusing to let Herbel respond to any of his allegations until the very end of the meeting, then attempting to interrupt her when it finally was her turn to talk, makes that clear. The fact that his wife was there to clean up and heap more allegations on Herbel after she attempted to state her case is further evidence of the bullying, which began with a laughable line from the mayor’s wife about how she doesn’t care about local politics, despite her ample social media postings to the contrary.

She also targeted this newspaper and this writer by name — something she has been doing with regularity for more than 15 years. We won’t dignify her latest insults with a response other than to note that the truest statement she made all evening was when she admitted she was relaying not facts but opinions.

These days, in far too many circles, knee-jerk opinions too often are confused with facts, which all manner of people seem to want to cover up and gloss over — like the mayor’s clear violation of ethics laws by not staying out of all discussions regarding transfer of a police dog from the city to the county, which employs him.

One promise we will make — and definitely will keep — is that this newspaper will never gloss over or cover up anything.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Jan. 11, 2023

 

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