by A.C. Hall
The White Settlement City Council held a work session on Thursday followed by a special meeting on Tuesday to address issues facing the city’s finance department. This item began in January when discussions were held over the possible hiring of former City Manager Linda Ryan as an internal auditor for the city. The council discussed that item at length in January, and ultimately Finance Director Phil Bray was directed by council to report back to them regarding his needs in the finance department.
Bray gave that report to council on Thursday, saying that it was clear what their main need is in his department.
“The obvious void is in the areas of the job functions Linda was doing,” Bray said.
He went on to speak about how they are having to deal with her departure from the City.
“The challenges we face in the finance department is how to integrate the work routines that Linda was doing into a department that is already challenged because of work loads that we have absorbed because of positions that were eliminated in the past and because of new work routines that are required now that had not been required previously,” Bray said.
He continued to speak about Linda Ryan’s work in the city, saying that while she wore many hats as City Manager, she was highly utilized by the finance department.
“We used about seventy percent of her time,” Bray said.
Bray also discussed the aspects of finance that Ryan specialized in versus his own work functions, saying there were areas each were trained in that the other was not.
The other members of the finance department were discussed by Bray as he spoke about the hard work and capabilities of the department.
“I just want you to know we have good, qualified people,” Bray said.
He continued to speak highly of the work of his department, saying that their major need now that Linda Ryan is gone is more help so they can handle the workload that Ryan had been handling.
One critical component to what Ryan did that is now missing is a water rate study. Bray said this was the major need of the department now that she’s gone since Fort Worth issued a water rate increase in 2014 that White Settlement has yet to pass on to their own customers. The price increase from Fort Worth was nearly 14 percent, but Bray explained that White Settlement needs to do a rate study before passing that increase on to their own customers. While usually done yearly around budget time, Bray explained that a new water rate study wasn’t done yet because they were waiting to settle some abnormal numbers that Fort Worth originally gave them.
As council considered an action item on this issue on Tuesday, the actual financial impact of not having a new water rate study was discussed.
“It could be costing the city a thousand dollars a day now or ten thousand dollars a day. Without the rate study you have no idea how much we’re losing every day from the water department,” City Manager Jim Ryan said.
To address this critical need, Bray had three proposals for outside companies to conduct the water rate study for the City. The low proposal was for $10,000, nearly $5,000 less than the next proposal, and came from former City Manager Linda Ryan. That proposal also included a quick turnaround, unlimited on site meetings, and unlimited time to train city staff, giving it even more of an edge on the other proposals.
As discussion continued on Tuesday about the need to have the rate study done, council member Paul Moore suggested going with Linda Ryan’s proposal due to the lower price and unlimited meetings and staff training.
Council member Steve Ott spoke against the idea, saying that it poses a problem since she’s the wife of current City Manager Jim Ryan.
“It would be a direct violation of the City charter,” Ott said.
City Attorney Warren Spencer spoke about the charter section regarding nepotism. He said that it’s not completely clear and that it’s up to the council to decide if the restrictions on hiring a spouse apply only to actual city employees or if temporary work like a water rate study also apply.
Council member Danny Anderson said he feels like it does apply to temporary work.
“I just think we’re crossing a line there,” Anderson said of the possible hiring of Linda Ryan.
City Manager Jim Ryan got involved in the conversation, saying that it’s never been about the money for he or Linda. He said that Linda would be willing to volunteer her time to train the finance department for free so they know how to do these water rate studies themselves.
Council member Elzie Clements said it would be foolish not to take her up on this but asked that they get the proposal in writing. He was informed by Spencer that since it’s voluntary work, they wouldn’t be able to put anything in writing. Jim Ryan reaffirmed that Linda would stick to her word and come in and do the training free of charge.
Despite the offer of free help, Anderson still made a motion to award the water rate study to one of the other companies. He said that they know Bray and the finance department are already swamped, and this is an important issue that needs to get done as soon as possible.
Bray was adamant about his ability to utilize Linda Ryan’s offer of free help and get the water rate study done in house. He spoke about taking a “leap of faith” and doing the study himself. Eventually Anderson removed his motion to hire one of the other companies.
As for the need for more help in the finance department, council unanimously voted to let staff start looking for someone to fill the long vacant Assistant Finance Director position. This position is expected to carry a salary in the $50,000 to $80,000 range.
Ethics ordinance moratorium put into place
Anderson brought this item forward at the council meeting on Tuesday as he said there are things in the ordinance that could be defined better and that the ordinance needs to be cleaned up. He also spoke about the ethics hearings that the council went through last year, saying it wasn’t clear how that process was supposed to work.
“To me that should never happen. We oughta know our guidelines; we oughta know what we’re doing and had it all down pat,” Anderson said.
He went on to say he’d like to see the ethics ordinance repealed and for a new one to be worked on and put into place.
Ott said that if the current ordinance is put on hold, council needs to actually address cleaning it up and getting a new one into place.
“I believe something like this should be in place, though. Everybody needs guidelines and a code of conduct and a way to conduct themselves,” Ott said.
The ethics ordinance had a six month moratorium placed on it once before, but no work was done on the ordinance during that time and it eventually just went back into effect.
Council member Clements spoke about this, saying they could do away with the current ethics ordinance and use it to help set up a new and improved one.
“We probably need something, but I’m not so sure that we need everything that’s written in here and the way it’s written,” Clements said of the current ordinance. “There’s a lot of leeway in this ordinance here that gives some people what I think is the power that I don’t really think should be.”
City Attorney Spencer spoke about the ethics ordinance, saying that any overhaul needs to have significant council involvement. He suggested having at least some of the council members work directly with staff if a rework is going to be done. Further discussions led to an agreement that the entire council would be involved, with a work session tentatively set for Saturday, Feb. 28 at 9 a.m.
A motion was made to place a nine month moratorium on the current ethics ordinance. That motion passed unanimously.
Ott presented this order of business as he introduced a new amendment to an ordinance that would deal with agenda preparation. He stated that there has been some confusion in the past on how this process works and this proposed amendment would clear it up.
The new amendment states that a council member, the mayor, the City Manager, and the City Attorney can place items on the agenda. The City Secretary can place day to day items in the consent section of the agenda, and citizens can still apply to the City Manager to have an agenda item placed. Once placed, an agenda item can only be removed by the person who placed it.
The new amendment also clears up who can call a special meeting. The mayor or any two council members can call a special meeting. A motion was made to approve this amendment that also included some housekeeping changes that brought the ordinance in line with the charter. That motion passed 4 – 1 with council member Mike Arnold voting against.
Council meeting times
Between the Thursday work session and the Tuesday council meeting, Mayor Ron White reached out to The Grizzly Detail about the starting times of these meetings. Both the work session and the Tuesday special meeting took place at 4 p.m., something White doesn’t agree with.
“My reason for this is the fact that many citizens who work and are not able to take off early do not have an opportunity to attend these meetings,” White said.
At Thursday’s work session, White suggested a later than 4 p.m. start time for the Feb. 3 special meeting. One argument against it was that city staff are still on site at 4 p.m. and it makes it easier to have access to them.
“I feel strongly about transparency in our government actions and decisions, whether they be at the local, state or federal level. Meetings held at or before 4 p.m. do not provide that opportunity,” White said in his comments to The Grizzly.
White also suggested that those not happy with work sessions and special meetings happening this early should contact their city council members who are setting those times.
The 7 p.m. start time for regularly scheduled council meetings remains in place.