The Monroe City Council deviated from the status quo last week, when three councilmembers refused to confirm one of Mayor Geoffrey Thomas' recommendations for the city's salary commission.
One of the duties of the mayor is recommending candidates for appointment to city boards and commissions. Candidates are vetted during an application and interview process, and selected by the mayor based on their qualifications. Typically, the council confirms the mayor's recommendations in a formal motion and the appointees are sworn in.
When commissioners or board members' terms expire, the mayor will often recommend them for reappointment if they are interested in continuing their service.
A total of nine positions were to be confirmed during the council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, several of which were reappointments. Paul Graf was recommended for reappointment to the ethics board, Brian Coonan and Bridgette Tuttle to the planning commission and Steve Whalen to the parks board. Monroe Public Schools Director of Facilities Devlin Piplic was a new candidate selected to be the school district representative on the parks board.
Erin Angus-Snapka was recommended for reappointment to the salary commission.-á
The newly formed salary commission is tasked with deciding salaries for the mayor and the city councilmembers. The five-member commission was established in March to simplify the pay structure for elected officials, but the city was initially unable to fill all five spots. The commission began operating as a three-person commission, with the understanding the two remaining positions would be filled as qualified candidates came forward.
Coonan, Angus-Snapka and Dave Van Kirk were recommended by the mayor in May, and confirmed by the Monroe City Council during the May 5 council meeting. In August, Coonan transitioned to the Monroe Planning Commission, which left three vacant seats on the salary commission.
After application review and in-person interviews, the mayor selected Josh Gibson, Patricia Graham and Ashley Sellers for appointment to the commission.
Councilmember Patsy Cudaback made a motion to confirm all nine of the recommendations, but Councilmember Kurt Goering initiated discussion regarding an issue he had with candidate Ashley Sellers. He said he felt there could be a conflict of interest due to the fact she recently served as campaign treasurer for Councilmember-elect Kirk Scarboro.
"This would put her in a position to then give a pay raise to that same councilmember,GÇ¥ Goering said. "I'm not trying to grandstand; I just think that there is an issue there.GÇ¥
Councilmember Kevin Hanford agreed.
According to the city, there was no legal reason to disallow Sellers from holding the position. City Administrator Gene Brazel said the city's legal counsel researched the issue and found no state law or city code prohibiting service based on Sellers' participation in the campaign.
Hanford had other concerns about Seller, stating he had found comments she made during the Nov. 17 public hearing on the east Monroe comprehensive plan amendment and zoning map change to be unprofessional. More than 70 concerned Monroe and area residents packed city hall that night, many of having been invited by longtime resident and east Monroe opponent Vicki Furrer.-á
Sellers and Furrer worked together leading up to the hearing, gathering a total of 397 signatures from residents opposed to the rezone. Furrer and Sellers had both given public comment on numerous occasions regarding east Monroe, including during the Nov. 17 hearing.
"I'm not a Facebook person. I can't stand it. I think real relationships matter, and Facebook is not for me. But I used somebody's Facebook account this week to stalk, and I was surprised,GÇ¥ said Sellers in her public comment that Hanford found unprofessional. "Maybe there is some holding of hands in this council, because I went on Facebook and I saw Chad Minnick and I saw four of you talking about football. If you can tell me that's not a conflict of interest, when Mr. Minnick is the representative? I have to disagree with you.GÇ¥
Chad Minnick's father, Thomas Minnick, is the lead pastor at Heritage Baptist Fellowship, the church that owns the east Monroe property. Sellers also voiced concern about the council considering Chad Minnick's company, Green Light Strategies, as the city's lobbying firm.
"Based on the poor judgement of those words, I would not feel comfortable in confirming her for salary commission,GÇ¥ Hanford said.
Councilmember Jim Kamp agreed with Hanford and Goering. Councilmembers Ed Davis and Jason Gamble were not present during the discussion. The mayor stood by his decision.
"First of all, we had excellent candidates all the way around,GÇ¥ Thomas said. "Miss Ashley Sellers interviewed very well. I thought she carried herself well in this room.GÇ¥
Thomas said he saw no legal or ethical conflicts.
"She would be one of five people that would be making the decision on the salary for seven councilmembers and the mayor,GÇ¥ Thomas said. "I think that she would do well on the salary commission.GÇ¥
Rasmussen and Cudaback agreed with the mayor. Cudaback cautioned councilmembers as to how the denial could be perceived by the public. Sellers came and spoke passionately against an issue that council ended up voting in favor of, Cudaback said, and denying her the opportunity to serve on the commission "sends a really poor message.GÇ¥-á
"I think we need to be very careful about sending that message; that if you come and you speak out at council against the majority of council, that then you might not be appointed on the commission,GÇ¥ Cudaback said.
Hanford said he wanted to be very clear that it wasn't Sellers' position about the rezone that caused him concern; it was the reference to going onto Facebook to "stalkGÇ¥ that gave him pause.
Further discussion ensued as councilmembers voiced their opinions. Cudaback asked for clarification, because she found the discussion confusing. Goering repeated more than once that Sellers could have served on "any other board but this one,GÇ¥ while other councilmembers' uneasiness about the Nov. 17 comments seemed to indicate they were disinclined to appoint her to any board or commission.
"I find that to be confusing,GÇ¥ Cudaback said.
No councilmembers offered to clarify whether they felt Sellers was only an inappropriate choice for the salary commission only or for all board and commission positions. Cudaback's motion failed 2-3, with Hanford, Kamp and Goering dissenting. Goering made a new motion to confirm all the recommendations except for Sellers, which was seconded by Kamp and passed 4-1, with Cudaback dissenting.
Rasmussen expressed his disappointment during the time set aside for councilmember comments. He said it reminded him of the time a previous mayor informed him he would not be reappointed to his seat on the parks board, a position he loved. Rasmussen said he strongly suspected it was due to his opposition to the wakeboard park on Lake Tye. -á -á
"It really kind of came full circle tonight; my heart goes out to that gal, to Miss Sellers,GÇ¥ Rasmussen said. "I'm disappointed in this tonight.GÇ¥
Cudaback also expressed her disappointment.
"I know sometimes I leave here and am not able to sleep because of some of the decisions and some of the discussions that we have,GÇ¥ Cudaback said. "Serving the community in this manner is incredibly meaningful. I appreciate Miss Sellers putting her name in the hat.GÇ¥
City staff couldn't recall a time in recent history that a mayoral recommendation for a board or commission was not confirmed.
Kept away from the meeting due to illness, Sellers was disappointed when she received the news. She and her husband have lived in Monroe for a year and a half, and she was looking forward to becoming involved in an official capacity.
"I have always approached the council with respect, professionalism and humor. The fact that my humor was misconstrued is disappointing to me,GÇ¥ Sellers said. "In an effort to formulate my own opinions regarding the councilmembers, I utilized the available resources, which were the city's website, newspaper articles and Facebook. The term "Facebook StalkingGÇ¥ was used as a humorous term to say that I had been doing research on the council, which any citizen should be encouraged to do.GÇ¥
Despite the fact that east Monroe was a controversial and highly charged issue; Sellers did routinely infuse bits of humor into her public testimony. When the comment about using Facebook to "stalkGÇ¥ was made, audible laughter by one of more councilmembers can be heard on the public record. -á -á
"Regardless of the council's decision, I look forward to continuing to fight for the betterment of Monroe, whether it be on a commission or as a citizen,GÇ¥ Sellers said. "I have spent countless hours talking to strangers in this town and hearing their hearts on this city, and I refuse to allow our voices to go mute. Monroe is my home, and I will continue to strive for its greatness.GÇ¥
Thomas stood by his decision to recommend Sellers both during and after the council meeting.
"I'm impressed with her passion for our community and the initiative she's taken to learn about different issues and the salary commission,GÇ¥ Thomas said. "Councilmembers seemed impressed with her qualifications and initiative, but a majority stated on Tuesday night that they rejected the appointment on the basis of testimony she gave during public comment; I'm disappointed.GÇ¥
The mayor said he is concerned about how the situation could negatively impact residents being willing to come forward and give public testimony in the future.
"I'm concerned about how people will see this decision,GÇ¥ Thomas said. "People need to know they can share their thoughts without being afraid they'll be kept from serving our community. This is the message that people need to hear; that you're welcome to come, to speak and to participate, because this is the people's government, it's your government.GÇ¥Photo by Chris Hendrickson Monroe City Clerk Elizabeth Smoot swears in Monroe resident Patricia Graham to the cityGÇÖs salary commission. Graham has lived in the city for nearly a year.