Last week's meeting of the Seward City Council began with confusion over its own agenda and ended with an executive session in which one member refused to take part and left the chambers before it began.
In between, the council approved a number of items promoting outstanding projects – including grant applications for the Historic Preservation Commission, an agreement with an architect to design a new animal shelter, a renewed contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and the purchase of 28 transformers for the electric utility.
But it also clashed repeatedly with its own attorneys. The body again postponed an ordinance written at a member’s request and disregarded explicit legal advice by voting on a motion which both City Attorney Holly Wells and City Manager Scott Meszaros said lay outside of the council’s authority.
The meeting began with a parliamentary idiosyncrasy.
The body adopted an unusual procedure at the beginning of its meeting, in which Mayor David Squires called for roll-call votes on whether items should remain on the consent agenda. In this manner, one item remained on the consent agenda in spite of three council members votes in favor of removing it.
However, removing an item from the consent agenda requires only that “the mayor or a council member specifically requests that such an item on the consent agenda be considered under the regular meeting agenda,” according to the City Council Rules and Procedures.
After the council had embarked on its action agenda, City Attorney Holly Wells repeatedly intervened to correct misunderstandings or advise against certain actions.
In the first such instance, the council was in the midst of debate on an ordinance that would allow the city to refund property developers for some costs incurred installing public utilities. In the course of the discussion, several citizens and council members took issue with the ordinance, saying that it lacked clarity and taking issue with the definitions of certain terms.
Wells spoke up to point out that many of the issues raised pertain not to the ordinance itself, but to the broader special assessment district procedure.
“I’m hearing a fundamental misunderstanding of the special improvement district and public improvement process. I’m hearing a lot of comments that don’t make sense,” Wells said. “All of this is separate and apart from your improvement or assessment district process, which is very heavily regulated.”
State law and city code establish the conditions under which the city can create special assessment districts, which require benefitting property owners to finance public improvements. The ordinance in question would have allowed property owners to apply for rebates on those expenditures.
The council postponed that ordinance, sending it back to the administration for further work.
In the next instance, the council took up an ordinance originally sponsored by Council Member Kelley Lane and composed by Wells. The ordinance, which would prohibit workplace bullying and harassment and require policies on the subject to be approved by the council, was postponed without comment at the previous council meeting.
At that meeting, Council Member Suzi Towsley made and Council Member Sharyl Seese seconded the motion to postpone. Lane told the Journal at the time that she supported the postponement because the ordinance did not reflect her conversations on the topic with Wells.
Lane repeated that assertion at Monday night’s meeting, drawing a stinging rebuttal from Wells.
“I am opposed to this ordinance change,” Lane said. “Unfortunately, all the things that I asked for were turned around to the opposite. So, I am opposed to postponing it. I am opposed to a work session.
“I think that when you ask for pie, and what you get back is not pie, it’s a waste of time to try to transform it into pie.”
Wells strenuously disagreed with Lane’s characterization.
“I just want to be very clear that what you are asking for is for this to be pro-bullying, pro-harassment,” Wells said. “I think this was exactly, verbatim, what you asked for. It actually prohibits bullying and sexual harassment and general harassment, and it does something very valiant I think, and unique, and expands the scope to cover all officials.
“I want to be clear, because if you want to pull this, it would be because you want something that promotes discrimination – which would violate state law, your charter, the state constitution and the U. S. constitution.”
Shortly thereafter, the body voted 5–1 to postpone the ordinance for consideration at a Sept. 9 work session. Lane voted against the postponement. Council Member Suzi Towsley was excused absent.
Finally, in one of the last action items on the agenda, the council ventured into legally murky waters by voting on a motion which Wells said would amount to a charter violation if passed. The Seward City Charter is effectively the city’s constitution and establishes the basic laws of the city.
The item in question, proposed by Lane, would have directed the city manager not to hire a replacement director for the Parks and Recreation Department following the upcoming retirement of the current director, Karin Sturdy, and the passage of the 2020–2021 biennial budget.
“I think it is a wise decision to delay hiring for a top-level position until after budget season,” Lane said.
Wells disagreed, citing a portion of the city charter, which says that “the council and its members shall not direct the appointment or removal of any administration officer or employee of the city and shall deal with the administrative service of the city through the city manager only.”
“By directing them not to fill a position, you’re directing them not to hire someone,” Wells said. She later added, “It is my opinion that council cannot direct administration at that micro-level.”
City Manager Scott Meszaros issued the same verdict.
“When I saw this, my impulse was to have it pulled off the agenda,” he said, although it was not clear that the city manager has that authority. “I do believe this is interference in administrative service.”
Lane maintained that she was only raising the issue as a matter of budgetary conservatism, saying that the council has an “opportunity to reassess.” Lane previously worked under outgoing Parks and Recreation Director Karin Sturdy.
Following the objections of Wells and Meszaros, Mayor David Squires made a motion to keep Sturdy’s position vacant following her retirement and until the adoption of the 2020–2021 budget. Squires told the Journal he did so to force a vote on the topic and end the discussion. The motion was seconded by Seese.
In a roll-call vote, the motion was defeated 4–2, with only Lane and Seese voting in favor. Council Member Jeremy Horn breached his customary taciturnity when called upon to vote, saying, “absolutely not.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, the body prepared to go into an executive session to discuss “financial management procedures implemented by the city to protect city funds from improper or unlawful use,” citing city code which permits executive sessions on topics “the immediate knowledge of which would clearly have an adverse impact on the finances of the city.”
Lane refused to participate in the executive session and left the chambers before it began, but did not explain why. When asked later, she declined to elaborate, saying only that she “believe[s] in transparency and openness.”