Wednesday’s special-call city council meeting went off anything but smoothly.
Over the near-hour session broadcast over Facebook, Mayor Keith Gaskin twice tried to gavel down a councilman for interrupting, argued with another over who was being more childish and felt compelled at one point to declare, “I am the mayor.”
Councilmen pushed back throughout, and Ward 4’s Pierre Beard even left the meeting in frustration before it adjourned.
Despite the tug-and-pull, the policy decisions that came from Wednesday were more direct: The city will not fund or accept private donations for a forensic audit, and it will advertise for vacant positions as-is without reviewing Gaskin’s as-yet-unveiled organizational chart.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, who serves as vice mayor, told The Dispatch afterward the meeting also sent a clear message to Gaskin.
“We just wanted to get his attention,” he said. “I think we got it.”
In separate 4-2 votes, the council overrode Gaskin’s vetoes of Oct. 5 decisions by the same margin as the original votes. One override reasserted a vote to strike down a proposed forensic audit of city finances. The other reaffirmed the city would advertise for chief operations and financial officers, as well as a city registrar, and assemble a hiring committee to vet applicants.
Gaskin announced his vetoes Tuesday and Mickens called for the next day’s special meeting to cut them down.
The forensic audit
Two forensic auditing firms presented to the council Oct. 5, offering services to look deeply into the city’s finances that ranged in cost from $23,000 to $275,0000.
On Wednesday, after Mickens moved to override Gaskin’s veto of the vote against the audit, Ward 3 Councilman Rusty Greene offered a substitute motion to consider an audit only if it was fully funded by private donations. The city would determine the scope of the audit based on the donations.
Stephen Jones, of Ward 5, argued the state-mandated annual audit, performed by Watkins, Ward and Stafford, had found deficiencies the city is already addressing. Even though a forensic audit is more thorough, he said, he didn’t believe it was necessary.
Greene, at different times, asked both Jones and Mickens why they would oppose a forensic audit that would be free to the city.
“Help me understand why you would be against an audit that would hopefully put safeguards in place so that things would not happen again in the future, and would possibly save the city money, if it’s at no cost to the city,” he pleaded.
Mickens, in his turn, said, “Rusty, that ship has sailed.”
Greene’s motion failed, but before the vote to override the veto, Beard asked for discussion, specifically pointing to Gaskin’s comments Tuesday that he would continue fighting for the audit regardless of the council’s vote on the veto. Gaskin assured he would “continue to bring it up.”
“If we’re back here again, everybody needs to talk this out so this doesn’t continue to keep happening,” Beard said. “… We need to have a detailed conversation now so everybody can leave here today knowing how everybody feels about this particular situation.
“If this is the topic and discussion that’s going to hold us back, we need to go on and get this out of the way, so we can move forward,” he added.
Mickens, in response to Beard’s concerns, asked City Attorney Jeff Turnage if Gaskin could bring forward the audit again after a veto override. Turnage said he could. Mickens mused aloud if he could add the term “indefinitely” to his motion to keep the measure from coming back, which drew an audible cackle from Gaskin.
Ultimately, he didn’t add that stipulation, but he did push for the override vote.
“I’m tired of going over this. I call for the question. I think it’s time to move forward. We’ve spent enough time on this. Ain’t nothing going to change, not on this issue,” Mickens said, before turning to Greene. “I’m not saying we’re not going to work together, Rusty, on some things in the future because I know we are. … We just don’t see eye to eye on this one.”
Ward 1 Councilman Ethel Stewart then began to speak and Mickens cut her off. Gaskin twice banged his gavel to allow her to speak, but Mickens turned to Turnage to stop the debate.
“You don’t hit no gavel here, Doc,” Mickens said. “Jeff, answer the question.”
Turnage agreed Mickens’ calling for the question effectively stopped debate, per parliamentary procedure.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Mickens said.
Gaskin then asked Stewart if she wanted to speak and she declined. After the vote, Gaskin looked into the camera and indirectly admonished Mickens to the viewing audience.
“You just saw an instance where Vice Mayor Mickens and I disagree on letting someone finish their sentences,” he said. “… What I would like to do is have an environment here where people can speak their minds, and I thought she had a serious question she was asking of another councilperson. I will never be in favor of another councilperson shutting that down. I just wanted to make people aware of that.”
The second veto override shot down, at least for now, Gaskin’s plans to reorganize city positions.
Chiefly, he wanted to convert the COO position to a chief administrator, raising the salary and giving the person more oversight over budgeting. The CFO would be replaced by a clerk/treasurer who would oversee accounting. Registrar duties, essentially coordinating municipal elections, would fold into another position, meaning that position would not be replaced.
The former registrar, Brenda Williams who retired in June, was also the clerk for the action center — the city’s hotline for complaints and concerns. Gaskin has already folded those duties into the role of his executive assistant Angela Jones.
Beard, however, said he called the action center number several times last week and didn’t get an answer, an accusation that raised Gaskin’s ire.
“I can assure you I’m getting calls every day saying that it’s much better than it was and that they appreciate that,” Gaskin said. “And if you’re implying that Angela is not doing a good job …”
Beard cut him off and asked him to remain professional.
“That just wasn’t professional what you did,” Gaskin said.
Jones, with Turnage’s agreement, noted if that particular discussion continued, it needed to be a personnel matter in executive session.
“We need people in all of these positions so City Hall can run the correct way,” Beard then said, as Gaskin chimed in with loud “Mmm Hmms” as he was speaking.
Beard noted he was initially for reviewing Gaskin’s organization plan, but he was offended by the incivility between the mayor and council.
“Until everybody can come back together and have a level head and a sane mind and get feelings and stuff out of the way, then we’re not going to be able to do nothing,” Beard said. “We’re going to continue to do exactly what we’re doing now.”
Mickens then directed Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell to advertise all three positions and turned to Gaskin.
“You are here to carry out the will of the council,” Mickens said. “Whatever the council directs, that’s your job, to carry it out.”
Gaskin somewhat disagreed with that characterization.
“My job is not to carry out the will of the council,” he said. “My job is to carry out the will of the people. Now, if the council disagrees with me, that’s fine. If y’all decide to go down this road, I’ll work with whoever you hire when you hire (them). Understand? … If y’all want to do this, and you are going to force my hand, I’m focused on what’s important for the city and I’ll move down that road.”
‘Educate’ or ‘inform’
Gaskin continued to address communication issues between him and the council, primarily that Gaskin was not speaking directly to council members and that he often released information to the council at the same time he gave it to the media and general public.
The mayor said he had already started emailing information to the council in advance but was remaining cautious not to communicate directly with the council too much because he didn’t want to violate public meetings laws. He also noted communication works both ways, and the council can call him any time.
“I’m just who I am. I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m not going to cut deals. … I want to have these meetings and be civil. But I mean, I am the mayor.”
Stewart criticized Gaskin for his words, especially comments he had made about the council to the media.
“I know when something doesn’t go a person’s way it would usually be upsetting to them,” Stewart said. “But I’ve noticed when something doesn’t go your way, you come out with a threat. … And when you do these things, you say, ‘Oh the media misinterpreted’ or ‘I’m sorry I didn’t mean it that way.’ I think you need to think about what you do and what you say.”
While Stewart was speaking, Gaskin and Beard began to argue. Beard didn’t appreciate something Gaskin said to him and Gaskin noted he didn’t appreciate Beard “jabbering in my ear” while Stewart was speaking.
“That’s childish,” Beard said.
Gaskin replied, “No, you’re childish.”
After the second override vote, Beard left the meeting.
Gaskin then addressed the council’s reaction to a specific comment he had made to The Dispatch Oct. 6, the morning after the council voted down the forensic audit the first time. Gaskin called a Dispatch reporter unsolicited and gave a statement he would “continue to educate” the council on the need for the audit.
Though the council took exception to the terminology, Gaskin said he didn’t mean anything derogatory.
“You can ‘educate’ people or you can ‘inform’ people of what’s going on,” Stewart responded. “You need to inform the council of what’s going on.”
Will work session for food
Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Greene suggested the council would benefit from regular work sessions where members could openly discuss issues without voting.
Other cities, such as Starkville, hold similar meetings.
“I believe everybody in this room has the right heart to move the city forward. It’s sad we’ve gotten into the bickering we have,” Greene said. “… So we can get in the room and just discuss things. … We just need to talk, y’all. I think we could get a whole lot more done, and I think we’d be a whole lot more in common than we think we are.”
Mickens, after the meeting, told The Dispatch he’s fine with work sessions as long as there’s food.
“Every time Jesus talked with His disciples, He fed them,” Mickens said smiling. “People are more accepting when they’re full.”
Mickens added he isn’t opposed to revisiting the audit or reorganization in the future, but the council needs to “let this rest awhile.”
“We are going to work with the mayor,” he said. “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure the mayor and council work well together for the citizens. I’m hoping today can be that starting point.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.