Sparks flew at Monday’s Hodgenville City Council meeting after City Clerk MaDonna Hornback pointed out a possible violation of the Open Meetings Act.
At last month’s meeting, Councilman Alex LaRue proposed the adoption of a municipal order requiring detailed financial reports be provided quarterly by the clerk. LaRue gave copies of the order to Hornback, Mayor Terry Cruse and City Attorney Mary Gaines Locke. The other council members appeared already to have copies of the document.
The order was not addressed at the meeting because it had not been placed on the agenda in advance, according to Mayor Cruse.
It was revealed at Monday’s meeting that two versions of the order had been prepared and distributed to council members prior to the March meeting.
The first version carried heavy penalties for the city clerk’s noncompliance, from a reprimand to suspension to termination of employment.
The second version detailed only the financial records to be presented on a quarterly basis.
Hornback turned the tables by filing a complaint of a violation of the Open Meetings Act against LaRue.
The OMA establishes a right of access to public meetings. It requires all meetings of a quorum of the members of a public agency where public business is discussed – or action taken – to be open to the public at all times.
Hornback’s letter, dated April 4 and addressed to Mayor Cruse, claims LaRue violated state law by contacting other council members privately on city business.
Hornback said the municipal order had been discussed with other city council members and revised before it was discussed in a public meeting.
She requested in the future, “all city council members should adhere to the requirements of the Open Meetings Act at all times and not discuss issues in private” and items to be discussed be placed on the agenda in advance “to allow the city council, mayor and city attorney opportunity to properly review and educate themselves about the issues prior to the meeting and facilitate the discussion of an action on the issues during the meeting.”
She presented an Attorney General’s opinion stating that a council member meeting individually with other members on an issue could constitute a quorum and in effect, skirt the Open Meetings Law.
She also took issue with the municipal order.
“ ... the original proposed municipal order gave the council authority to fire the city clerk. Council member LaRue was told at a City Official Academy training course that the council did not have the authority to fire the city clerk. Council member LaRue was attempting to go around the law (KRS 83A.130-9).”
According to state law, the City has three days to respond to Hornback’s complaint.
Councilman James Phelps said Hornback made “a very good point” but “would argue the point that this was a gathering. A gathering has to be four of us together.”
Locke read a statute from the City Official’s Legal Handbook addressing the situation: A series of “less than quorum” meetings could “collectively constitute a quorum.”
Violating the Open Meetings Law could result in nullifying any action taken at those meetings.
Cruse and Locke said they believed the “private meetings” of council members violated the OMA. Councilman Kenny DeVore agreed.
LaRue apologized to the other council members “for bringing them into this.”
“I would admonish the mayor that it would be a good idea to let every new council member know of the rules.”
LaRue said he was unaware of the council’s 2011 decision to follow a preplanned agenda.
“I didn’t know it was a rule,” LaRue said.
LaRue then questioned the veracity of a news story about the proposed municipal order. He said the front page story in the March 20 issue of The LaRue County Herald News was based on “false information.”
“First of all the article that ran in the newspaper and what this complaint is based on partly … is B.S.,” he said.
He asked who was interviewed for the article. Hornback replied that Ireland had requested a copy of the municipal order. (Editor’s note: The article was based on discussion at the March 11 city council meeting and a copy of the municipal order. The editor was unaware that two versions of the proposed order existed until Monday’s meeting.)
LaRue asked Hornback, “Where did you get your copy of (the order)?”
Cruse: “I gave it to her.”
LaRue: “Where did you get it?”
Cruse: “I got it from Glenda (council woman Glenda Wathen).”
LaRue: “OK – you didn’t get it from me.”
Cruse: “You gave it to her (Wathen).”
LaRue: “I gave it to Glenda.”
Cruse: “Yes, you did.”
LaRue: “And I told her that was trash.”
LaRue said he told Wathen the first version of the ordinance wouldn’t “fly” due to the proposed penalties.
Cruse said the information in the story was accurate.
“The whole thing is about violating the Open Meetings Law,” Cruse said. “The complaint is based on the fact that you went around and talked to all these people and you shouldn’t have.”
Cruse said the council agreed to follow an agenda in 2011 so everyone would have the same information.
If the council no longer wanted to follow an agenda, they have the right to change it.
“The proper thing to do is to make a motion to do away with it,” he said.
Cruse said there were “some problems” with him and LaRue “getting along.”
“Nobody’s winning when we’re bickering,” he said. “I’m not winning. You’re not winning. The people who elected us are not winning. We were all elected to do the city’s business. I’d like to see that happen.”
“The mere fact alone that everybody had a copy of these things and the city attorney, the clerk and myself were kept in the dark, we feel deliberately … I think shows a lack of working together ....”
The second version of the municipal order was the next item on the agenda. LaRue presented it to the council and made a motion to adopt it. Councilman Woodie Handley seconded.
Hornback said the request for additional financial records would mean extra work for her and could prove costly to the city. The city’s accountant had indicated the accounting system would need to be changed – or she could provide the information at a cost of about $10,000 per year.
“It sounds like you’ve got a lot to do, just like every other business operating in this town and somehow they manage,” said LaRue. “Would you like some help? Do you need an assistant?”
“I think I’m doing fairly well but what you’re wanting me to do is an enormous amount of work and will cost tens of thousands of dollars and all you have to do is get off your butt and walk in there and pull the drawer out and get it,” Hornback said.
Councilman DeVore got out three words: “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
“I’m sorry but I’ve been trying for three and a half months to try and pacify you,” Hornback said.
LaRue had made an open records request Jan. 7, asking for the four most recent audits, outstanding bond information, payment schedules, outstanding notes and loans, finance contracts, open contracts for purchases, construction, maintenance and employment, list of all credit cards and a copy of the last 12 detailed statements for each, list of who carries credit cards, list of all open charge accounts, line of credit and who has charge privileges, detailed financial statements for Sept. 20, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2012, detailed check register for the last six months of 2012, copy of the minutes of all meetings in the last 24 months and employee list by department with pay rate.
Hornback said some of the records requested did not exist – such as a list of all credit cards and who carries them. She requested LaRue make an appointment to do an “on-site inspection” of records before receiving any copies “due to the enormous request” and advised the cost of 10 cents per copy must be prepaid.
LaRue said the request for the records was not for him – but for city council.
He eventually withdrew the motion to have a vote on the municipal order and asked for the matter to be placed on the agenda for May.
Hornback also asked for an item to be placed on next month’s agenda: She would like to receive overtime pay for extra hours worked.
DeVore said the Council needed to “move on” and suggested they start holding “working meetings” a week or so in advance of the regular meeting to discuss things that will be voted on.
DeVore said he also would like to see “more detail” in financial reports but doesn’t think “everything is ready to go.” The council members should discuss the type of format they want the finances presented in and find out if the current accounting system can produce the reports, he added.
The Council agreed to discuss dates and times for working sessions at the May meeting.
Cruse and LaRue shook hands after the meeting and agreed once more to try to work together.