The Williamson City Council meeting came to an abrupt end last Thursday evening (July 23) as a motion to adjourn came mid-sentence as Fire Chief Joey Carey was attempting to give a report about his department. The meeting became extremely turbulent and even the adjournment was debated.
Tension among the council members was expressed throughout the entire meeting and grew more intense with every topic the body discussed such as the West Virginia home rule provision, a forensic audit of city accounts. Tempers eventually flared during a discussion about a CARES Act grant awarded to the city to the point that the meeting devolved into profanity and name calling. Because of the sudden adjournment, on Friday (July 24), a special council meeting was scheduled for Tuesday (July 28) to discuss personnel matters.
CARES Act Grant
The council requested all documentation and guidance information concerning a CARES Act grant that was awarded to the city. That grant is in the amount of $81,177 and came through a U.S. Congressional act to assist local, state and federal governments in dealing with expenses and financial losses encountered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is administered by the governor’s office and the state auditor’s office and is to be used to shore up shortfalls COVID has led us to,” said Mayor Charlie Hatfield. “I applied for it back in June. I asked for that amount. I worked with my police chief and my fire chief because their payrolls were the issue. I submitted the application and I am very pleased and proud to announce that we got it.’
A statement by the mayor that the grant would be placed in the city’s general fund became the source of contention. Price, Councilman Joe Venturino and Councilwoman Sherri Hairston Brown questioned if that was the proper placement of the grant or if a special account was needed for it. Venturino passed the question on to Brown as well.
Brown told them the requirements were very broad concerning the CARES Act funding but that the General Fund could be appropriate. His only stipulation is that there has to be a proper accounting of the grant money because at any time in the future the state may require full disclosure of how the funds were spent.
Hatfield also deferred to Brown, who has served on the council longer than any other member. Brown then called on former Mayor Darrin McCormick. McCormick reiterated comments from Hatfield and Brown that specific instructions would be sent when the grant is formally awarded.
“As long as you can you tell, me right here in this meeting, that if we stick that in general revenue we can track it; that we can get those answers that’s going to be asked by the auditor,” Price told Hatfield.
“We got the $81,000 ..,” Brown said before being interrupted by Hatfiled:
“You didn’t get it. I applied for it and we got it,” Hatfield said. “It has been awarded to the city but it has not been funded yet. You didn’t even know I applied for it so don’t talk like you are, okay?”
“You’re a smartass,” Brown countered.
“I’m tire of this tonight. This is like a witch hunt and I’m getting tired of it,” Hatfield responded. “You all want to act like I’m doing something wrong.”
A heated exchange ensued between the two.
“You didn’t have to talk to me that way,” Brown said repeatedly which Hatfield denied wrongdoing. “Then why are you being so damned smart with me?”
“I’m just being straight with you,” Hatfield said.
“You are being straight with me?” Brown retorted. “I’m not the one that’s going to jail you (expletive) dumbass.”
Hatfield interrupted her and attempted to move on. However, that is when Brown began asking for the meeting to end. Price tried to calm her down to no avail. The council was able to pass a motion to pay the city’s bills. All members of the council voted in favor of the action except Brown who did not vote either way nor did she abstain from voting.
“Let’s just calm down,” Price told Brown.
“No! No! He will not talk to me that way,” Brown yelled. “That (expletive).”
A motion by Councilman Ralph Hall to go into executive session to discuss personnel matters died for a lack of second. It was at that time the mayor called on Carey for his report.
Brown made a motion to adjourn which was seconded by Venturino. Hatfield question the legitimacy of such an action given there were still items on the agenda. He asked for a reason for the adjournment saying the people attending deserved an explanation. Brown said an explanation was not needed. On a roll-call vote, Brown, Venturino and Price voted in favor of the adjournment. Hall, who was the only dissenting vote, said, “Absolutely, not.”
Home rule provision
An agenda item for the presentation of information concerning a state provision for municipalities called “home rule.” Hatfield had City Attorney Nathan Brown to present the information to the council.
Brown said the program began as a pilot program that ran for a decade — 2007-2017 — before being rolled out statewide. He said home rule gives cities more latitude in daily operations adding that if a city choses to become designated as a home rule municipality, there are no requirements that programs have to be implemented.
“It is not intended to enlarge the government. It is not intended to give more power to one person or to even the council,” Brown said. “It takes no power away from any council. Anything that still happens in this city must pass on a majority vote of the council. It does not give the mayor any more power or any less power. It is just another tool the council would have to govern the city.”
He said that currently 34 or 35 West Virginia municipalities are using the home rule provision including neighboring Logan.
Before handing the floor to Brown, Hatfield promoted the home rule provision, “If anyone doubts it (the benefits of home rule) doesn’t need to look any farther than Huntington’s Putman Square and if any you travel as far as Bridgeport, the folks there will tell you the home rule provisions allowed them to growth phenomenally.”
The home rule provision was vehemently opposed by Councilman Randal Price, who read from a statement: “People who live in home rule cities pay higher taxes and higher fees than those who live in traditional cities. That’s a fact.”
He went to say other states with such provisions mandate in smaller cities that the home rule provision is to be voted on by the residents. This is not the case in West Virginia.
“If West Virginia would do that and the people voted on it, I would be all for it,” Price said. “But, as it stands right now, I will not support it.”
Full forensic audit
The council then began a discussion concerning a full forensic audit of all accounts controlled by the city including business and occupational taxes, city utilities and general accounts. Price had requested the item to be placed on the agenda.
Hatfield agreed with need of an audit saying that he had been expressing a need for an audit since the current administration came on board in 2017. However, he suggested the council consider a general audit rather than a forensic audit citing the absorbent cost of such a detailed and complex audit. The mayor also suggested the matter be tabled until the newly hired city clerk, Cheri Horton, has time to become more familiar with the city’s finances.
“I don’t think we can afford not to,” Price said. “All guidance concerning city audits states that cities should perform an audit at least every other year. I feel we have failed our citizens and our past and present city clerks by not performing one before this request. I have the utmost confidence in Ms. Horton’s abilities to perform the duties of city clerk, if this council will give her the tools and proper resources to do the job as required.”
Price told the council discussed the matter with Horton and she said an audit would be beneficial to her.
In addition, Price alluded to discrepancies in the Police Utility Fund and the Paint the Tank Fund along with city’s “dire financial condition.”
The council voted unanimously to proceed with audit with Horton to check with different firms for price estimates. Details will be discussed as the process moves forth.
Tuesday’s special meeting was fairly uneventful, however, tension and animosity from the previous meeting was evident. Prior going into the executive session Brown spoke up: “I want the police chief to go in with us. He is my safety.” Hatfield concurred, saying, “He is my safety as well.”
The council approved several actions following the executive session. Votes on each matter – hiring Amanda Brooks as assistant utility clerk, increasing the per-call rate paid to volunteer firefighters and adjusting the salary of the fire chief – passed unanimously, however, Price abstained from the vote hiring the assistant utility clerk.
The next Williamson City Council meeting will be at 5 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 16, in the council chambers at city hall. The public is allowed to attended meeting with proper social distancing, Face coverings are required. The city provides masks for those who not have one.