Monday, April 5, 2010

Veto - Clerk-Treasurer Merger Ordinance




April 6, 2010



Mrs. Sandra Ramsey, City Clerk
CITY OF HELENA-WEST HELENA, ARKANSAS
226 Perry Street
P. O. Box 248
Helena-West Helena, AR 72342

Re:    Veto of Ordinance Merging the Office of the City Clerk and Office of the City Treasurer

Dear Madam Clerk:

Please accept this writing as my veto of the Ordinance merging the offices currently held by you and Mr. Michael Lynn Boone. I am vetoing this ordinance because it is against the interest of the majority of people in our city and is motivated by less than honorable goals. I will specify my points below. Suffice it to say, however, that there has been very little public dialogue from the members of the city council that truly substantiates the purpose of this improvident course of action.

I could begin my discussion of citizens opposition to this ordinance in a number of places. For brevity, I will begin with just a few years ago. At that time, citizens made the first really formal attempt to merge our cities. They were turned away by the then present city councils. What followed the turn down is really interesting. 

Sometime around 2002 the city council was reluctant to allow the consolidation effort to go forward. Many people expressed grave concern for the approach that the consolidation proponents used. People used their normal ways for assessing a situation and thereby arrived at their routine position of skepticism and distrust.

Meanwhile, the consolidation proponents were successful in getting the consolidation law changed to empower the citizens with greater say over whether there would be an election on the issue. Also, the composition of the city council changed. In the intervening years, particularly in what was West Helena and is now Helena-West Helena, there were sways in the council composition. For the first four years, Mayor Weaver had a council composed of four black people and four white people. Then during his last three years, the council flipped so to speak. Mayor Weaver had a council that had five white people and three black people for two years. That council formed a veto proof block of council members who micromanaged the mayor and the city. They fought. They fought. They argued. They met. They had workshops. They really got after it. Then, while they were meeting, fighting, arguing, having workshops and getting after it, the law on filing for office was changed. Therefore, they missed the filing deadline and were replaced by Eddie Lee, Edward Joshaway, Nathan Ashwood, Calvin Holden, and Clarence Richardson. So much for whatever they had met, fought, argued and got after it about, their days on the council were over. 

Then, seeing another opportunity to strike while the iron was hot, the proponents of consolidation went to work. The change in the law made the difference and allowed the election to go forward. About 60 percent of the citizens in both cities voted in favor of consolidating the cities and naming the new city "Helena-West Helena." Prior to the consolidation being consummated, a transition team was charged with the responsibility of making recommendations to the new city in a effort to take the best of each community and enhance it for the benefit of all citizens. The transition team made some contradictory recommendations which required you to choose one direction or the opposite direction. The team also said that its recommendations were advisory and may not be legal to the extent that no lawyer was charged with the responsibility of gauging the legality of the recommendations. All in all, the transition team did a wonderful job and made some excellent recommendations. 

The Arkansas Municipal League convened a special training session in Helena for the sake of the new administration. The Municipal League brought many staff people, including its Executive Director, Don Zimmerman and General Counsel, Mark Hayes, Esq.; to the Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas for the training. The league representatives went through the transition team's recommendations one by one and made suggestions, corrections or modifications to them. Additonally, the league provided its own recommendations on the formation of the new city. About a week later, we had the first meeting of our consolidated city. At that meeting, the position of City Treasurer was the subject of heated debate. The primary issue was the amount of the salary. The council took three votes on setting the salary of the city treasurer before settling on an amount. However, here's where the trouble starts.  The council took the staff position from the treasurer and gave it to the city clerk. The city clerk therefore had four persons assisting the city clerk, and the city treasurer had no staff. 

In the intervening budget years, the city council has been reluctant to provide technical assistance to the office of the city treasurer. As a matter of fact, the council provided the city attorney with an assistant while declining to assist the city treasurer. In spite of the opposition and hostility, the city treasurer worked and secured a grant in the amount of about $30,000.00 for software, hardware, and training on a new financial system for our city. With this software, the city treasurer and clerk have been able to provide detailed information to a host of people including the news media, the auditors and the city council. Our software and hardware systems appear to be better than our paper system and such was noted in the findings of the 2007 audit which states that our staff needs more training. In other words, because of the changes implemented by the city treasurer, the auditors could find on the computer what they could not find on paper. In years past, the auditors had trouble conducting audits in our communities for a variety of reasons.

The duties of the city clerk and city treasurer are identical. See Arkansas Code Annotated §§ 14-43-506, 507 which state:

14-43-506
 
(a) The city clerk in cities of the first class shall have the custody of all the laws and ordinances of the city and shall keep a regular and correct journal of the proceedings of the city council.
 
(b)(1) The city clerk, city clerk-treasurer, or city treasurer, as the case may be, shall be required to submit quarterly a full report and a detailed statement of the financial condition of the city. This report shall show receipts, disbursements, and balance on hand, together with all liabilities of the city.
 
(2) The report shall be submitted to the council in open session.
 
14-43-507
 
Treasurers in cities of the first class shall be required to make similar reports as prescribed in § 14-43-506 and shall perform such other duties as may be required by the ordinances of the city.

These duties are intended to be redundant, duplicate and a check and balance on the funds of the city. It is a good process. It makes both the clerk and treasurer responsible to and responsive to their boss: the citizens of our city. When a hired gun comes in and does the books for our community, we have to trust that his or her advice is based upon his reputation and forthright opinion. We will not truly know whether his opinion would differ if he was not afraid that his pay check would be discontinued. These are real concerns.
 
In a community of this size, it makes good sense to have checks and balances between the clerk and the treasurer who have an independent duty to report to the mayor, city council and citizens. They also must comply with state and federal law. Moreover, what happens when and if the clerk and treasurer offices are merged into one office and that person takes this power granted by the city council and uses it in a bad way? Where is the check and balance? Do not forget that it was Shirley Miles Coad, the independent and elected city treasurer, who on December 31, 2005 or thereabouts stopped payment on a$58,000.00 check and gave this community an opportunity to determine the validity of the debt. 

Additionally, city council members have power only during their meetings. Outside of council meetings, they are regular citizens and must leave the day to day operations to the administration. In order words, they are not a check and balance on the city treasurer or the city clerk.
 
This city council says that I, as mayor, have lost touch with the people of this community. However, we had two town hall meetings in 2009. The first at New Haven Church on West Street and organized by the Mayor and Ward 5 representatives, Don Etherly and Marvin Jarrett. We again say thank you to Rev. Rodney Corbin, The New Haven Missionary Baptist Church Family, KJIW FM 94.5, Marvin Jarrett, Connie Jarrett, Linda English with the Helena-West Helena School District, Claude Barnes, Consultant;  and the people from Workforce for making that meeting possible. The attendance at the Ward 5 (New Haven Church) meeting exceeded 350 people. The second such meeting was organized by the aldermen in Wards 1-4, Mr. Bruce Hudson, Mr. Eddie Clark, Mr. Jay Hollowell, Mr. Joe St. Columbia, Mr. Joe Grubbs, Mr. Larry Wilson, Mr. John Washington and Mr. Tommy Hunt. The meeting at Central High School's large and expansive 2000 seat gymnasium was so scarcely attended that no more than 30 people were present; not even 10 percent of the Ward 5 meeting. All 380 of these people are important to our community. However, it makes the larger point about who is in touch with the citizens and who is not.

Mike Boone faced Edward Joshaway in a loser leave town match for city treasurer in 2005. Mike Boone received 80% of the vote. Boone got to stay in town. Edward Joshaway received 20% of the vote. In 2006, Mike Boone faced Mr. Patrick Roberson and Mrs. Shaquala (wife of Bobby) Jones. In the three person race, Mike Boone received a sufficient majority to win without a run off election and likely would have exceeded the 60% mark in that election except for Mrs. Jones placement in the race in an effort to force a run-off.

In both of those elections, citizens cared enough about the position to vote for the candidates on the ballot. That represents an interest on the part of the citizens of Helena-West Helena. Moreover, we have had two retired city treasurers in West Helena would served 20 or more years each. Mr. Buddy Waddell is currently receiving retiree benefits from this city and Mr. James Bogle received the benefits until his death after we consolidated the cities. Between those men, Jay Jones, Shirley Miles-Coad, and Michael Lynn Boone, this community has had an elected city treasurer for at least the last 60 years.

This ordinance is snatching power from the people of this community. In 2006, the last opportunity the people had, 4226 people voted in the treasurer's election. Those people cared enough about the position to chose between the three candidates on the ballot. To do away with the office, which has been challenged in the last two elections, is a clear indication that this body does not trust the people who elected the treasurer but are instead catering to a few folk. This is basically undemocratic and follows a republican mantra of small government with more government funds flowing to private industry friends of the people in power.

This city council is taking a permanent action when they are temporary servants. This council is up for election every two years and subject to change at each election. Such has surely been the case in the last several elections. The council has no objective data indicating that a clear majority of the people want the actions it is taking to be the law of our community. No polls have been taken. No survey has been done. No empirical data has been compiled. All we have is this group of men saying "I think," "I feel," "I believe," and the like. In times like these, we should simply allow the citizens to decide on the issue. We should place this matter on the ballot for the citizens to decide. This council can put it on the ballot at any time. If the citizens propose a referendum, then the general election would be the best opportunity for the full involvement of the citizens.

What about all of the treasurer’s reports that have been presented?  The City council has received detailed reports from the City Treasurer from the time period that we received the software through February 2010. This council has gone through the reports line by line and questioned the receipts of various vendors including David Atkins, Claude Barnes and Andrew Bagley. This council has been armed with more information than ever before in the history of their service.

 

I have been told that the books of the City of West Helena were unable to be audited, while the City Council for the City of Helena, with the help of a CPA, did not pay for lights, water, gas, or landfill for an entire year. The City of Helena’s existence ended with $700,000 overrun on the budget while not paying the aforementioned bills. For West Helena to collect the landfill debt, it had to sue Helena and Southern paid 60% of the bill and, as part of the settlement, 40% of the landfill bill was written off.  The former City of Helena did not have a City Treasurer.


This ordinance, like the civil service commission ordinance, is another quickly thrown together package and a back room deal made by the minority. The vocal minority has the ear of this city council and it, while it can, is trying to run roughshod over the people of this community. This council has not even provided the courtesy to either Mr. Michael Boone or Mrs. Sandi Ramsey of asking their opinion on the matter of merging this office. This council thinks that because it has the power, it must use it. Such a dangerous thought is just like a police officer thinking that because she has a pistol she should shoot it. This thinking harkens back to firefighters using hoses on people rather than fires simply because they had the power to do it. What we have here is a small group of men who believe that they should do "whatever they have the votes to do."
 
Such a skewed philosophy can lead to extremely disastrous results.

Finally, I admire and respect Dr. Robert Miller and the Miller family. They were and are noble public servants. I hate that Dr. Miller's tenure in Helena was at a time of its growing financial demise. I say that almost apologetically to Dr. Miller. However, I must say that I have heard enough of how "we" did it in Helena. That is the growing sentiment that I hear from this council. I hear this particularly from the Ward 2 representatives Mr. Joe St. Columbia and Mr. Jay Hollowell. One of those men has honorably admitted the financial failings over which he sat. The other of them in nice terms, did not and does not have a clue.

In closing, I personally want the opportunity to vote for the next city treasurer. It is my understanding that Michael Lynn Boone has had his fill with this office and this council. You guys have been on a path to stop all progress, disrupt daily activity, micromanage and embarrass this administration. I have shared with members of this council that this coalition can not stand because its purposes are not proper. I have shared that several members of this city council are taking votes in a "go along to get along" manner that will cost them theirs seat at this table. People are not happy when genuinely good people like Mike Boone are treated the way this council has treated him. Mike Boone has not hurt anybody; he has not done any person wrong. However, you guys led the charge to having him removed from his job at the bank and now you are with the improvident stroke of a pen writing his elected office out of the books forever. 

At the end of the day and at the end of your term, I see you sitting under a tree drinking a mint julep, like they do in Mississippi and Kentucky, and telling the story of your service to a young child. At the end of the story, the child looks up and smiles and asks you why were you always against something or somebody "I thought that public service was about being for something that betters everybody." Then as you nearly choke on your drink, you tell the child, "ah you weren't listening."

For these and other reasons, I respectfully veto the improvident merger of the offices of city treasurer and city clerk.

Sincerely,



James F. Valley, Mayor




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