by A.C. Hall
On Tuesday evening, the preliminary hearing was held to begin looking into alleged ethics violations by Council member Elzie Clements. Following up on a motion made earlier this month, the White Settlement City Council acted as the Ethics Review Commission in this matter, with Clements even sitting in and being allowed a vote.
Details about the complaints against Clements came out over the course of the hearing. The alleged incidents happened on April 25, where it is alleged that Clements approached volunteer fire fighters on the day of the air show and treated them rudely while telling them what to do and what not to do. This matter eventually included members from the street department and the public works department, as Clements came to City Hall looking for someone in charge with which to discuss the behavior of the city employees. Clements would later say these allegations were not correct, denying he ever instructed anyone to do anything.
City Attorney Warren Spencer listed those who were involved against Clements in this matter. It was unclear if all listed had made complaints against Clements or if only some had, but those names given were City Manager Linda Ryan, City Marshal Jeff James, White Settlement Fire Chief Brian Thompson, and Robert Smith of Public Works. The names Frankie Brown, Michael Young, Melvin Wilson, Brady Graham, and Clint Elsworth were also listed as part of this matter.
There are two sections of the code of ethics Clements is accused of breaking. The first is section 2-4.005, sub section A-11, which states that council members cannot “Engage in any dishonest or criminal act or any other conduct prejudicial to the government of the city or that reflects discredit upon the government of the city, including but not limited to conduct that would constitute threats, intimidation of city employees or others, or bullying.”
The second section mentioned was 2-4.005 sub section L which states that “The City Charter shall govern the appointment to and removal of persons from employment with the city. Except for the purpose of inquiry, the city council and its members shall deal with the city departments and city employees for which the City Manager is responsible solely through the City Manager.”
Of all those listed as part of the complaint, the only one on hand for council members to question was Human Resources Director Mark Huff. Huff is the one who originally heard complaints from city employees and volunteer fire fighters on this matter, and was also the one that received their written statements. Huff was not a witness to the alleged violation and is not one of the complainants. None of those who witnessed the alleged incident were on hand to speak or to be questioned.
Huff was sworn in by City Secretary Amy Arnold. Each council member was given three minutes to question him. Gene Hatcher began, asking Huff if there is an ordinance that states council members must take their issues with city employees to the City Manager.
Huff said this is something that’s laid out in the City Charter.
“It’s been there for a very, very long time,” Huff said. “It’s a common practice for cities to have language such as this to prevent situations where one council members tells an employee to do one thing, then another council member tells them you should do this.”
He stated that the matter should be taken to the City Manager, who is then responsible for dealing with the employee.
Mike Arnold abstained from asking any questions. This moved things to Danny Anderson, who referenced Huff’s earlier remarks that indicated Clements had directed city employees to do things. Anderson disputed this, saying he didn’t see anywhere in any of the complaints where Clements had tried to direct employees.
“In every statement that I’ve read they all say the same thing, that he was upset about wasting city tax dollars,” Anderson said.
Anderson wanted Huff to identify which of the statements backed up the claim that Clements had actually given direction to the employees. Huff stated this could be found in the statements of Robert Smith and Fire Chief Brian Thompson.
“That’s not how I read it from their statements,” Anderson said. Anderson than asked what it was that these men were directed to do.
“I wasn’t there, you’ve got to understand that,” Huff said.
Huff said all he can do is ask them to write a statement about their complaint, and that from there it’s up to the governing body to decide what to do next.
“These complaints were made, they were consistent and it seemed enough so that it needed to be brought forward,” Huff said.
Anderson used his final question to ask if Huff has ever had any conversations with City Manager Linda Ryan regarding her feelings towards council members.
“I can’t think of anything off the top of my head,” Huff said.
Steve Ott was up next, but was told that his question wasn’t allowed since it was an opinion type question.
Elzie Clements was allowed to question Huff last. He asked when the written complaints were given to Huff, and was told that since the original verbal complaints weren’t made until late on Friday, the written complaints weren’t submitted until Monday. Clements then tried to get clarification as to who received the complaints, Huff or Ryan.
Huff’s answer was unclear, as at first he appeared to indicate that some came to him and others came to Ryan since he was in and out of his office that day.
“There may have been occasion where they brought it to me because I was in my office or they brought it to Linda [Ryan] because I had instructed them, that they, Linda is the City Manager, that it was really to her that ultimately this would go to,” Huff said.
He indicated also that Ryan had made copies of some of the written statements, but that Huff got the originals.
Clements also asked for Huff to point out where in the Fire Chief’s complaint it indicated that Clements had instructed him to do something. After beginning to give his thoughts on it, there were comments from the audience and some confusion as to if Huff was giving testimony on the matter, ultimately prompting Huff to answer that he had no comment on this particular question.
Council members were given a one minute closing statement, with Hatcher up first.
“We need to go on further with this hearing into the next level because there definitely needs to be something done about this,” Hatcher said.
Arnold was up next, saying that the council members need to speak to those who work for them with respect.
“They’re not on trial so we don’t need to treat them as such,” Arnold said.
Anderson spoke next, saying that all the statements agree that Clements was upset about the “waste of public tax dollars.”
“Even the Fire Chief agreed with Mr. Clements that they weren’t assigned to be down there [at the air show],” Anderson said.
Anderson said that Clements came to City Hall that day and that he was just seeking information as to why tax dollars were being wasted.
Ott was next, saying he believes everyone is entitled to their day in court. He said that to ensure due process is followed in this matter, they need to move into a final hearing.
Clements spoke last, sharing his thoughts on the matter.
“Quite a few times I’ve been known to lose my temper, but in these complaints these people filed against me, in no way shape form or fashion did I use the language those people said I used,” Clements said. “I did not in any way direct a person to do any thing, all I did was ask them questions about why they were there and why city dollars were being spent in a way that I thought wasn’t a good way to spend city tax dollars.”
Clements said he took an oath to protect the citizens of White Settlement when he was sworn into office.
“If that doesn’t mean that we can question people about why tax dollars are being spent then something is wrong with the system,” Clements said.
Moving to the final phase of the hearing, Council was instructed that they should vote yes if they believe an ethics violation had occurred, and no if they believe it had not. The vote was 3 yes and 2 no, with Hatcher, Arnold, and Ott voting yes, and Anderson and Clements voting no.
Once the vote was recorded the meeting was adjourned. No information was given on what happens next, but the code of ethics indicates that this matter will now move into a Final Hearing. The time and date of any such final hearing was not provided.
Earlier in the evening, council voted 4 to 1 that if this ethics matter moves on to a final hearing, the City Attorney be authorized to locate an attorney to represent the City in the ethics matter with the sum not to exceed $2500. Clements voted against that motion.
Also earlier in the evening, three individuals spoke out against the ethics issue. The first asked how the ethics committee serves the citizens, while another spoke out against threatening those who have differing opinions, saying it was a shame the council can’t get along and work towards the betterment of the city. One final resident stated that the code of ethics ordinance was confusing and likely unconstitutional, saying the process of council members naming themselves to the ethics commission was unethical. This individual went on to say that voters are tired of council members bullying one another and trying to throw each other out of office.