Questions about Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements for flood damage at the Riverwalk and the Sen. Terry Brown Amphitheater on Tuesday led to an attempt to strip Public Information Officer Joe Dillon of some of his job responsibilities and take away his keys to city facilities.
Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens’ motion to reduce his duties died without a second, however, and the council instead tabled the matter for future discussion.
Dillon has worked on contract for the city since 2016 during Robert Smith’s mayoral administration. Originally he was tasked with public information officer duties, issuing press releases for the mayor’s office and police department as well as organizing press conferences. Over time his duties expanded to assembling and deploying the police department’s surveillance cameras, helping with technology, running the live streams of city meetings and overseeing paperwork relating to damage claims eligible for FEMA reimbursement.
According to Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell, Dillon is paid $32,000 a year for his public information work, and $90 an hour, not to exceed $10,000, for his work on FEMA claims.
Clean water permits
The questions started during Chief Financial Officer James Brigham’s report, when he said he was waiting on a decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to close out two FEMA projects arising from flooding in 2019. The city is applying for FEMA reimbursement for $21,500 at the Riverwalk and $45,700 at the amphitheater.
Both projects involved cleaning up silt following flooding in February 2019. The Army Corps of Engineers must certify that the cleanup met federal clean water standards. Failure to get that certification means no money from FEMA.
Federal rules changed during the project related to that permitting process, according to Dillon, and the city needs a waiver from the Army Corps of Engineers to be eligible for federal reimbursement. Confusion in the CFO’s office, caused by poor record-keeping, has also caused delays in filing.
“How did the ball get dropped?” Mickens asked.
“There was a lack of cooperation among the staff members, the mayor’s staff,” Brigham said. “… (Dillon) says that the Clean Water Act permits came after the incidents, and he wasn’t aware that he needed those permits. I have no opinion on that since I wasn’t here.”
Mickens asked if Dillon should be replaced, and Brigham said no.
“At this point in time, these two projects are documented and being held up by the Clean Water permit,” Brigham said. “The Corps will either grant us those permits based on a Mississippi Emergency Management Agency waiver, or they don’t.”
Dillon, speaking to The Dispatch after the meeting, said the work was completed correctly. This was simply an issue of paperwork.
“The rules changed after we did the work,” he said. “MEMA is working with the Corps of Engineers to get a statewide waiver (for the federal rules) because this went on all over the state. We’re having to prove that we didn’t just dump the silt back in the river and pollute the river.”
The city has provided the Corps of Engineers with signed affidavits from workers who participated in the project, swearing that they didn’t dump anything back in the river.
“We don’t even have the equipment (to move silt back into the river),” Dillon said.
Keys to the city
Toward the end of Tuesday’s council meeting at the Municipal Complex, Mickens moved to reduce Dillon’s job responsibilities back to solely being PIO, stripping him of all his other work.
“(Dillon) is not a city employee, and I understand he has keys to all the buildings in the city of Columbus,” Mickens said. “If he’s not a city employee, he shouldn’t have those keys.”
Mickens said there had been questions about FEMA projects that Dillon handled, and he thought Dillon was doing too much.
“The FEMA work was extra work the council voted to give him,” said Mayor Keith Gaskin. “I think they gave him that responsibility because (former Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong) was retiring and didn’t want to do it.”
Dillon asked to speak, pushing back on claims that he had not handled FEMA documents well.
“I inherited a mess,” Dillon said. “Our projects were completed in April 2021. I started asking for documents and I got not one single sheet of paper. When the CFO (Deliah Vaughn) left, Pat Mitchell and (then interim COO Mark Alexander Jr.) copied documents and gave me hundreds of pages.”
Bills for tornado damage were not separated into a special account as they should have been but were paid from various accounts in the general fund, Dillon said.
“We found 16 different account numbers for how things were paid, with no rhyme or reason,” Dillon said. “… Engineering bills were lumped together with general city work. You can’t do that, they have to be separate invoices. They were paid in one big pile.
“I was handing off the bills and invoices to the CFO’s office,” he added. “From there the CFO office told us they would handle the filing and paperwork. I don’t have access to the (CFO’s) system. We didn’t know it wasn’t being done.”
Gaskin asked about the key question.
Dillon said he had keys to the Municipal Complex and to City Hall, primarily so that he can set up equipment to stream meetings.
“I come in at night a lot to set up streaming,” he said. “I do it at night so I’m not interrupting people. It has to be set up at off hours so we can stream the press conferences, the workshops.”
Mickens didn’t see it that way.
“I still need somebody to help me out with why he has keys,” Mickens said. “Employees think somebody’s coming into their office when they’re not there. Can anybody have keys? Can I give my son keys? I don’t have keys to City Hall.”
During the discussion, City Recreation Director Greg Lewis said that cleaning crews have keys to many of the community centers, and technology contractors also have keys to buildings such as the Trotter Convention Center.
Mickens’ motion did not get a second. Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones suggested the city take time to look at Dillon’s various roles and how they should be handled, and Gaskin suggested tabling the issue.
“(Dillon) is a jack of all trades, and he assists everyone,” Gaskin said. “He does a lot, and when I came into office I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Mickens then moved to table, seconded by Jones, and it passed unanimously.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.