My apologies for the lack of recent postings. The town of
Our seven Council members volunteer to serve two-year terms with no remuneration. There is currently a hotly-debated issue of giving stipends to the Council members for attending the various meetings, but it has never been done before and is not yet the practice. Council members hold jobs elsewhere as their sources of income.
The job of running the city’s administration is performed by the city manager, who is the employee of the City Council. The city manager hires and supervises the various department heads within the city administration: Finance, Public Works, Fire Department, Police Department, Parks & Rec,
Until about a year and a half ago,
That was not a good idea, as it makes the city attorney subject to political partizenship and creates the difficult situation of having seven bosses. It also opens the possibility that if a Council member should violate the Bethel Municipal Code (BMC), that member would be prosecuted by his or her own employee, the city attorney. Which is precisely what happened.
Old time Bethelites tell tales of the earlier days when lawlessness was more rampant here, and life a lot more colorful. I have heard of City Council meetings of thirty years ago that devolved into drunken brawls, complete with shouting matches, name-calling and fist fights. I have heard that twenty-five years ago, a man was shot to death—in the back, unarmed—in broad daylight, right in front of the post office, witnessed by any number of people, and the guy who pulled the trigger never went to jail. Real Old West type of stuff.
In the nearly ten years that I have lived here, Bethel has been a far more civilized place, but its heritage of wildness and non-conformity is a bright thread in the fabric of the town’s society. One thing that has not changed is a lack of cohesiveness and involvement when it comes to communal issues like the political process necessary to elect our city officials. Back in 1957, about 20% of the town’s population voted on the incorporation issue; today we are lucky if that same percentage turns up at the polls to vote our City Council members into office. One of our current members recently obtained his seat with 216 votes.
Our current Council consists of five men and two women. One of the men was just appointed at the regular meeting two weeks ago to fill a vacancy left when a sitting member moved away from
The man who won that straw vote to get appointed to the City Council is a convicted felon who served jail time for dealing drugs. He is also a rebel who has refused to comply with the Bethel Municipal Code which, several years ago, outlawed the use of honey buckets within the city limits. All homes in Bethel are required to have sewer service, either piped or hauled; you can no longer pee and poop in a five-gallon bucket and either dump it somewhere or expect the city to come and pick it up and dispose of it for you, as they did for many years. This newly-appointed Council member has been seen dumping his honey buckets into the tundra pond behind his house, posing a public health threat to his neighbors.
He was cited for this violation of the BMC last summer. He paid his initial fine of about $100, but has not taken any steps to rectify his situation, despite the fact that over a year ago, the City of
The city attorney is a delightful, intelligent, accomplished woman with a degree from the University of Arkansas School of Law, and is a member of the Alaska State Bar. She completed her first year in her current position last November. Her first evaluation was due at that time, but was repeatedly postponed. Several members of Council completed and handed in their evaluations on paper, but the meeting to discuss her overall job performance was not held until last Friday night, Feb. 8th, ten days after the straw vote that appointed the new Council member, and one day after his $18,000 ticket had been filed at the Bethel Courthouse by the city attorney. She chose to have her evaluation performed in public, which means that it should have been done at a regular Council meeting and broadcast to the entire Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on the radio.
Instead, a Special Meeting was called, on a Friday night. No radio broadcast. About a dozen members of the public, including Dutch and myself, knew about it and were present in Council chambers for the travesty that unfolded.
The city attorney stated her opposition to the participation of the newly-appointed Council member. Not only was she prosecuting him for his violations of the BMC, he had not been a member of Council for the time period of her evaluation. It constituted such a clear conflict of interest that all of us observing were in stunned disbelief when he did not recuse himself and the mayor supported his participation in the evaluation.
A brief aside here about the Council chambers. Back in the day,
So the evaluation proceeded. The three Council members on the audience’s left (the two women and one of the men) all spoke highly of the city attorney’s job performance in the past year. They suggested a few things she might work on, but overall gave her high marks. The three members on the audience’s right spoke very negatively, and in ways that did not make sense when they gave specific examples. Despite that, one of the three men gave her good marks overall, and one gave her marks that while not high, were at least passing (likely unknown to him; he spoke as if he thought he were cutting her off at the knees). The mayor, who had gone first in the evaluation, spoke of her performance as disappointing, though she responded to his points succinctly, and it was apparent to those of us observing that he had little to be disappointed about.
As the last evaluator finished, before anyone could even take a breath, one of the three on the right made a motion for immediate termination of the city attorney’s contract, and in half a nanosecond that motion was seconded by the newly-appointed member with conflicts of interest who was sitting next to him.
There was a shocked intake of breath by the audience and by the three members on the left. What??? It took a minute to sink in. We just couldn’t believe it. This had to be a joke. But no.
The three members on the left spoke eloquently about the injustice, the lack of reason, the foolhardiness of this move. It was pointed out that firing the city attorney would leave
Dutch was every bit as angry as I was, and we left immediately, before either of us said or did something ill-advised. We learned later that evening that the mayor and the vice-mayor (who was the maker of the motion) called a police officer and the three of them escorted the city attorney to her office, required her to turn in her keys on the spot and would not allow her to take even her personal effects—her diplomas, her shoes for Pete’s sake!—from the building. They treated her like a heinous criminal, with no dignity or respect.
Over the weekend there were flurries of phone calls as news of the events of Friday night spread around town like wildfire. The responses we encountered were fairly universal: stunned disbelief. The rapidity with which it happened made it clear that this had been planned ahead of time. Doing so would be in clear violation of the Open Meetings Act, which prohibits members of City Councils to meet privately to discuss Council business.
The next regularly scheduled Council meeting was last night. The citizens of
Toward the end of his fifteen minutes, he asked the all important question: what is your plan now? So you’ve fired the city attorney, and what do we do next? We’re facing numerous issues that require legal counsel. Do you think you’ll just put out a job notice and we’ll hire someone new to step in by next week? That won’t happen. Do you think we’ll just call up a firm in
There was a single member of the public who spoke in support of Friday night’s events. She called the four members of Council who voted for dismissal of the city attorney brave individuals. She read into the record a letter from a local lawyer to our city attorney in which he questioned her involvement in a legal issue last summer. The letter was clearly an inquiry, not based on a complete set of facts, and the speaker did not read the city attorney’s response to the letter, which cleared things up for the lawyer who wrote to her. It was numerator data; without a denominator, worthless. A few speakers later, it was revealed by someone else that this lone voice in support of the dismissal is the new campaign manager for the mayor, who is running for a seat in the State legislature.
Dutch’s point was very clear: this entire debacle was an irrational, ill-planned move that gave a few people with personal vendettas a few seconds of gratification. “Gottcha!” The smug grin on the face of the newly-appointed Council member throughout the Special Meeting on Friday could not have been more clear. What the four members who voted for this did not seem to calculate or care about was the huge repercussion to the City of
Financially, it could bankrupt the city. The city attorney clearly has a strong case for wrongful dismissal. I expect that she will sue the city, and the individual members of the Council, over this. I hope she does; they need to learn that their actions have consequences, and that they are responsible for their actions. It is not just a game, like some of them—the maker of the motion in particular—seem to think. It is likely that the city’s insurer will not cover the damages in such a case. And then there are the many cases in process for which we will now have to hire expensive outside legal counsel.
This action has had a very chilling effect on the people in city administration. The maker of the motion has appeared to have an outright war going on again the city manager in the not-too-distant past; clearly, he will be next, and one of the citizens who spoke last night said as much. As a prominent department head, Dutch will likely be third; he has already been the subject of a Special Meeting “roast”, spearheaded by a former Council member with an axe to grind. His words to the Council last night, while honest and brave, did not win him any love from them. The audience, however, applauded wildly.
For the last several years, the attitude of the City Council towards the city administration has been one of malevolence and mistrust; and this at a time when
The City Council, on the other hand, has been a squabbling, undermining, back stabbing bunch, who seem to be serving on Council only to advance their personal agendas, with little care for doing the city’s business or acting in the city’s long-term best interest. Listening to the Council meetings every other week, either in attendance at City Hall or on the radio, is an exercise in frustration. The pettiness, the sneering, the lack of respect with which they treat each other and, by extension, the citizens of
Labels: Life in Bethel