Within hours of a Tuesday press conference where Mayor Keith Gaskin announced vetoes for two recent council votes, Vice Mayor Joseph Mickens had called a special council meeting to consider overriding them.
The council will meet at 1 p.m. today in the public reception room at City Hall to deal with Gaskin’s vetoes of council action related to the forensic audit and starting the hiring process for a chief operations officer, chief financial officer and city registrar. The meeting will not be open to in-person public attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions, but it will be streamed live on the City of Columbus MS Mayor’s Office Facebook page.
Councilmen voted 4-2 on Oct. 5 to scrap Gaskin’s plans for a forensic audit of the city’s finances following presentations by two firms, which gave cost estimates for their services ranging from $23,000 to $275,000. The motion, brought by Mickens, also called for the city to reject any private donations to pay for the audit.
By the same margin, the council voted to initiate the hiring process for the three city vacancies, despite an interim COO and CFO currently working for the city for free and Gaskin’s plans to present the council with a new organizational chart for city positions this month. That chart would consolidate more duties with the COO and eliminate the need for a dedicated CFO and city registrar, Gaskin said.
During Tuesday’s press conference, Gaskin called both those council actions “unwise” because they “cut down” two of his key initiatives without adequate discussion.
“These two decisions that they made cut (the discussion) process out,” Gaskin said. “… I think both of those were poorly made decisions. It seemed to me it was more of a personal reason than for the right reasons, which is for the citizens of Columbus.
“I felt like y’all were trying to show me, ‘We’re a strong council. We can shut this down,’” he later added.
The same 4-2 votes can override both of Gaskin’s vetoes. Mickens on Tuesday told The Dispatch he expected that result.
“I don’t see nothing changing,” Mickens said. “We knew a veto was possible when we voted the first time.”
Even if Gaskin’s vetoes fail, he vowed Tuesday to keep pushing for the forensic audit and his staffing plan for his entire term, if necessary.
“I’m not giving up on this,” Gaskin said. “I’ll talk about this for four years if I have to.
“I will work with whoever the council decides to hire and at what position. I will do everything I can to make those positions work,” he later added. “I will also continue to show them job descriptions that I think we need to move toward and I will show them an (organizational) chart that I think we need to adopt.”
Forensic audit, organizational chart
Calls for a forensic audit of city finances came after former CFO Milton Rawle pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $290,000 in city funds between 2016 and 2018 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The city ran deficits of more than $800,000 in Fiscal Years 2017 and 2018 and also found a $1.5 million clerical error in its budgeting process for this year just 48 hours before the deadline to approve the budget.
Gaskin said Tuesday the need for the audit and new organizational chart for city positions went hand-in-hand.
The city, for example, still doesn’t have adequate procedures for logging inventory, and it hasn’t implemented all the protocols and procedures its annual state-mandated audit directed since the embezzlement. Fixing that, Gaskin said, requires getting the right people in place in the right positions.
“We’ve had good people trying to do the work, but it has not been done for whatever reason,” he said. “We cannot continue to move down that road. If we go and rush and hire positions that I think are not exactly the positions we need to move the city forward without any discussion, I think that’s problematic.”
Ward 4 Pierre Beard attended Gaskin’s press conference and raised concerns he said he’s heard from constituents about the forensic audit being little more than a targeted effort to catch more criminal activity.
Gaskin said that was an unfair assumption.
“There’s an assumption this is a ‘I gotcha’ or ‘I’m looking for ya’ is just not who I am. … A lot of people assume that because, and let’s go ahead and put it out there, I’m the middle-aged white guy that defeated the (city’s) first African American mayor,” Gaskin said, referring to his victory in June over incumbent Robert Smith. “That’s an easy assumption to jump to. People out there want to compare me to Trump, which almost makes me want to vomit. Yeah I just said it. I could not be farther from Donald Trump than anybody.”
But Gaskin warned that failing to fairly discuss a forensic audit “inflames the conspiracy theorists out there.”
“Hopefully nothing major will be found,” he said. “At least it will clear the air.”
Originally, Gaskin planned to have his organizational chart presented to the public and council by Monday. Those efforts, he said, were delayed by the council’s action last week but it is “almost finished.”
Asked if he was willing to negotiate on either the audit or staffing, Gaskin said he was.
“There’s room for negotiation on everything,” he said. “Whoever said there wasn’t? … It’s not my way or the highway. If the council goes a different direction, I will happily work with that.”
Continued communication problems
On Tuesday, Gaskin also defended his efforts to improve communication with the council and continued to criticize how he has been portrayed in the media and on Facebook.
He said he had emailed the council his vetoes and called each of them to discuss it prior to the press conference. He had also invited them all to the press conference, although Beard was the only one who came.
“Contrary to what some might think, I have a very good relationship with all the council members,” he said. “I know they are good people who want to make a difference in this city. … I have admitted, as a new mayor, maybe I haven’t always communicated as well as some — as many — believe I should, but I am working very hard to correct that.”
Mickens, however, told The Dispatch on Tuesday the situation had not improved.
“We’re at the same place,” he said. “Communication is everything. You know that. … We’re going to do everything we can for the relationship with the council and mayor to work out. We have no communication with the mayor. All we are saying (to him) is, just talk to us.”
After the press conference, Beard told The Dispatch he was unmoved regarding the audit. He felt the price range gap between the firms was poorly explained and their presentations not well-enough prepared. He also is concerned about “some assumptions still being thrown around” regarding the audit’s purpose.
“I’m staying where I’m at,” Beard said of his vote.
On the organizational chart, however, Beard said he is open to more discussion. Time is of the essence to fill whatever positions are approved, he said, because he remains concerned about the city being short-staffed in key positions — especially when interim COO Mark Alexander Jr. and interim CFO Mike Bernsen, both volunteers, can “leave at any time.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.