The city council on Tuesday approved allowing Mike Bernsen to volunteer part-time as the city’s interim chief financial officer.
Bernsen will be a familiar face at City Hall when he is there. He works full-time in that same capacity for Columbus Light and Water, and before he was employed by the utility he served as city CFO. He will temporarily replace Deliah Vaughn, who resigned from the position in September.
But Bernsen’s appointment Tuesday came with a catch. Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones moved to “allow Bernsen to volunteer” but also directed Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell to immediately begin the process of hiring a permanent CFO, chief operations officer and city registrar.
Part of Jones’ motion, which passed, also called for creating a hiring committee to vet candidates for those three positions and bring the top three candidates for each before the council for public interviews.
“We’ve been without two of these for a while,” Jones told The Dispatch in a phone interview Wednesday. “Now, we’re without another one. We need some movement toward getting permanent replacements for these positions besides just relying on interims.”
Mark Alexander Jr. stepped in as interim COO, also on a volunteer basis, after David Armstrong retired from the post June 30. He initially agreed to assist first-term Mayor Keith Gaskin’s new administration, which began in July, for three to six months but has said publicly he is ready to step away.
City Registrar Brenda Williams, who coordinated city elections and managed the city’s action center, also retired June 30. Her position has not been filled with a permanent or interim employee.
The issue now created with the board’s Tuesday order, however, is Gaskin doesn’t plan to recommend hiring a new registrar or CFO. He has said publicly, specifically for a Sept. 25 article in The Dispatch, he wants to eliminate the registrar position, hire a treasurer/clerk in place of the CFO and absorb chief financial duties and election supervision into a new COO role that will pay an annual salary in the $120,000 range — a 50-percent increase from what Armstrong was paid.
Those position changes would be noted in a new organizational chart for the city Gaskin plans to propose. He said he still intends to provide the public and council members copies of the chart by Monday, giving everyone time to review it before it is discussed at a future council meeting.
“I don’t know anything about an organizational chart,” Jones said Wednesday. “The problem is we don’t always read the newspaper. We might miss things. There’s nothing like direct communication.”
Since the Gaskin administration began, the mayor has routinely shared his plans with the public — through conventional media or social media — before discussing any of those issues directly with council members. Jones is not the first one to complain. Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, the vice mayor and longest tenured council member serving, told The Dispatch on Sept. 22 the council members “want to hear from the mayor” and “things would go much smoother for him” if he communicated more with the council.
Things did not go very smoothly for Gaskin at Tuesday evening’s council meeting. Aside from Jones’ motion on staffing, a 4-2 majority — led by Mickens and that included Jones, Ward 1’s Ethel Stewart and Ward 4’s Pierre Beard — shot down Gaskin’s hope for a forensic audit of city finances. Tensions were apparent even toward the end of the meeting, during a discussion with Public Information Officer Joe Dillon on why the city had not yet installed any of the police surveillance cameras at city parks. A particular exchange between Mickens and Dillon compelled Gaskin to admonish Mickens for “his tone” before the mayor adjourned the meeting.
Jones said he believed “the tone” of that whole meeting at least partially spilled over from council members feeling left out of the loop.
“I think it just worked out that way because everybody felt a certain kind of way,” Jones said. “… (Gaskin) has to recognize, ‘I have to work with these guys to make compromises,’ and you’ve got to speak to people to do that.”
Even Gaskin, on Tuesday, agreed his communication with council members fed a sometimes combative tone at the meeting.
“What you’re seeing here is a reflection of those frustrations,” Gaskin said. “That’s understandable. Communication can always be better, and I will continue working on that. … We just have to be careful how we do it.”
Gaskin said he has limited his direct communication with council members on city policy issues outside public meetings to keep from running afoul of public meetings laws. While it’s generally permissible for the mayor and individual council members to discuss things one-on-one, it’s not permissible to poll council members or make de facto policy decisions outside council meetings.
For Jones, as it is for Mickens, he simply wants to hear the mayor’s vision directly from him.
“He has a vision and each councilman does too,” he said. “(If he talked to us) at least we would know where he stands and he would know where we stand, and we can work on compromise. But he doesn’t know what our vision is because we don’t communicate. When that’s the case, we tend to speak through the council.”
On killing the forensic audit plan, Jones defended his vote Wednesday, saying a deep investigation into the city’s past financials would do little to unite the city. He said the city’s annual audit has noted deficiencies in internal financial controls that can be addressed without spending up to $275,000 on an additional, forensic audit.
“I think better internal controls happen when we hire good people and put good policies in place,” he said. “The other auditor (Watkins, Ward and Stafford) is telling us what we need to do in the annual audit. We need to implement the things the other auditor is already telling us.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.