THIS IS A SPECIAL REPORT OF THE RIVER CITY NEWS - MORE COVINGTON NEWS THAN ANY OTHER SOURCE!
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The Covington City Commission has struggled to follow the intentions of its heralded social contract, signed by its five members and city administrators in December before their new term began.
Public meetings have often been contentious, devolving into personal attacks from some commissioners usually aimed at city staff.
The month of May has been particularly troublesome for the city's governing body, evidenced by the tone of a meeting that featured a surprise resolution opposing a proposed rate increase by Sanitation District 1, a resolution presented by first-term Commissioner Michelle Williams, called "poorly written" and "not good for the city" by City Manager Larry Klein.
The animosity between Williams, Klein, and Mayor Sherry Carran was first put on display prior to the presentation of that resolution, which ended up passing by a vote of 3-2. Backroom disagreements between the commissioners and administrators first came to light during a difficult meeting in March in a fight over an appointment to the Housing Authority of Covington Board of Commissioners. Battles over the hiring of a municipal specialist to perform landscaping and arborist duties as well as the level of staffing within the Covington Fire Department followed.
After those battles at the end of winter, some on the city commission vowed to work towards improving their working relationship.
But now as spring prepares to make its exit, those working relationships appear not only to have not improved, but to have worsened.
A loud, verbal altercation ensued inside City Hall when Williams was barred from attending staff meetings. Soon after, the Kentucky League of Cities was called in to explain to the commission how a city manager-city commission form of government is supposed to operate and how to increase civility while conducting the people's work. Williams and her closest ally at City Hall, Commissioner Mildred Rains, did not attend.
While the public meetings are demonstrative of the fractured nature of the city commission's working relationship, what's going on behind the scenes is more troubling.
A lack of trust and respect is evident but even now some at City Hall don't view the problems as insurmountable.
The River City News obtained hundreds of email conversations throughout the month of May between the mayor, city commissioners, and city administrators through the Kentucky Open Records Act, and as promised on Tuesday evening, will share the most crucial pieces of information from those correspondences with its readers in a series of posts titled, "The City Hall Emails".
This is part one of that series.
On May 1, Mayor Sherry Carran sent an email to Commissioners Chuck Eilerman and Steve Frank, City Manager Larry Klein, and Assistant City Managers Larisa Sims and Frank Warnock (who is also the city solicitor). Carran wanted to address the behavior of other commissioners and to develop a clearer protocol in dealing with members of the staff. The email followed months of concern about the way Commissioner Williams was believed to be treating city staffers.
"Larry, Frank and Larisa," the mayor wrote, "Chuck, Steve and I are in agreement that we want to see a protocol set for how Commission Members treat City Staff and possibly behavior during times when they are performing their duties, such as City Meetings. Protocol to the effect that abusive treatment will not be tolerated, that staff can decide not to meet with two Commissioners at a time to prevent an abusive situation, that unrealistic demands on staff's time will be moderated, and that City Commission Members will not sit in on Staff Meetings unless invited by Management. Frank, are you comfortable in putting something together and then sending to the Chuck, Steve and I to see if has the language we think is needed. Once we are comfortable with it, we thought it would then be shared in Executive Session with the whole Commission."
As the conversation progressed, Klein suggested that the city commission hold an executive session and discuss protocol among themselves, without city staffers present.
"I am hoping that it might be easier for Commission to discuss/argue/etc without any staff there, but we will do whatever helps," Klein wrote.
The following day, tensions heated up again. After months of perceived verbal abuse from Commissioners Rains and Williams, Klein had decided that he would no longer meet with them alone, asking that Warnock be present and asking if there was a way to record the meetings. An early morning email on May 2 from Rains to Klein demonstrated the hostility.
"Larry, this is Commissioner Rains and my meeting is with you only," wrote Rains in one email to the city manager. "If anyone else is in the meeting I will take this as insubordination."
"Don't be late for this meeting today," Klein wrote to Frank Warnock.
Interestingly, the email from Rains was sent at 6:57 a.m. from the email account of Commissioner Williams. No explanation was given as to why.
Klein forwarded Rains's email to the rest of the commission with the subject line, "FYI".
"This is absurd," responded Commissioner Eilerman. "You can have anyone else you want. As we have been discussing, she has no direct individual power over you. I suggest Frank be with you and you
keep notes. Sorry you have to deal with this."
"No problem. Frank will be there," Klein said.
"If they don't want to meet with Frank, I see no reason why you need to meet at all," Eilerman continued. "It occurs that it may be about time for a direct communication reigning this in from the Mayor or City Attorney."
"Perhaps we invite JD Chaney (of the Kentucky League of Cities) for refresher course on City Manager form of govt? Seriously? He's a third party," Klein suggested, more than a month before KLC came to town to offer such a course.
Klein did meet with Rains that morning, along with Warnock. Eilerman followed up to see how the meeting had gone.
"Rough start for about 45 minutes, then got better," Klein said. "We will see. I still don't think she understands (city manager) form of government. I tried to explain I can't be insubordinate to any individual member of Commission, only to the body and even then the (Kentucky Revised Statutes) prescribes the role of CM. Frank is trying to advise/coach them too."
Klein and Eilerman then discuss the best way to address the situation with the whole commission, Rains & WIlliams included, and whether Chaney should be invited to the next executive session.
A few days later, on May 7, an email from Klein to Warnock reads, "For your sake, no more meetings with them. I will figure (out) what to do about it. I owe you better than today."
No context was available within the obtained emails to clarify that reference.
A call for help
A point of contention at City Hall is the attendance of Williams at staff meetings conducted by Klein. The city manager had grown uncomfortable with the continued presence of an elected official at these meetings, believing that it holds back the candor staff should be entitled to while discussing issues. State statute supports Klein's assertion that elected officials can only attend staff meetings at the invitation of the city manager.
Commissioner Eilerman inquired to Klein whether he had reached out to Williams yet about the issue. "Either way, with or without Commission direction, I am going to let her know next week, then email rest of Commission about it so everyone knows it applies to entire Commission," Klein responded.
"I just preferred to let her know in person, first, then send to all of Commission via email." That was May 10. On May 15, Williams emailed the commission and administrators.
"Larry (called) me at 10:00am today and asked me not to attend the staff meeting, and I am still not clear as to why," Williams wrote. "(N)one the less in exchange for me not attending the meeting, he agreed to set up a meeting with him, Mike (Yeager, city engineer), and myself to come up with solutions (to) the parking issues on MLK & Wheeler street," Williams wrote.
The commissioner was referencing a lengthy email that was penned by Klein that attempted to summarize fifteen requests Williams made of Klein in their most recent meeting. It included fifteen items about which she wanted answers. That issue will be explored in part two of this series.
Nearly two weeks earlier, Klein had contacted the Kentucky League of Cities and JD Chaney for advice on how to move forward.
"I wanted to ask if you (and maybe Robin Cooper) could find time in next couple of weeks to travel to Covington to meet with our City Commission in executive session, for purpose of explaining the City Manager form of government.
I have a new City Commissioner (since January 2013) who I do not think understands CM form of government, believing she can consume many hours per week of my meeting time for sole purpose of making demands for information, large and small, to the point where it is interfering with my ability to do the rest of my 80 hour per week job.
She has also been quite hostile, and Frank has even advised her in my presence that she is “creating a hostile work environment for me”. Her response is that “I am creating a hostile work environment for me”. She has screamed and yelled and cussed at me, calling me “liar” several times, in the presence of other employees, and from behind closed doors where other employees down and around the hall can hear her.
She did attend the orientation for newly elected officials that KLC had, and I understand was quite surprised to learn that as a City Commissioner she could not order people around.
Frank has repeatedly explained to her and in my presence that the Commission as a body is the executive authority of the City, and that as individuals, Mayor and Commissioners have no authority.
Fortunately, I have three very solid and supportive members in Mayor Carran, and Commissioners Steve Frank and Chuck Eilerman.
My other Commissioner, Mildred Rains, who previously served on City Commission and long time retired City employee, is a constant partner in these meetings with my other Commissioner who does not understand CM form of government, also attempting to direct me in demanding information, even information from other agencies that we do not control but do business with.
So, I was thinking perhaps a neutral party such as KLC, could do an “intervention” of sorts with our City Commission, if nothing else to help facilitate some discussion, education, and hopefully understanding.
I can tell you that Mayor Carran, and Commissioners Frank and Eilerman are very supportive of having KLC try to help us."
Chaney responded, "Absolutely. Whatever you need us to do, we are happy to help. I don’t know about executive session under the Open Meetings Act, but perhaps we could label it a brief training or something like that that wouldn’t be subject to act anyway. ...Hang in there."
Klein forwarded Chaney's response to Mayor Carran, Commissioner Eilerman, and Assistant City Manager Warnock. "I am going to talk with him tomorrow morning," Klein wrote. "I am looking at next week for an executive session to invite JD to. Frank please weigh in on whether or not we can do this in executive session. I don’t see how we can do it in open session."
It would be nearly two weeks later that a public "training session" would be set up involving KLC and Covington City Hall.
Klein sent notice to the commissioners one day after conditions deteriorated so badly over the issue of Williams' attendance at staff meetings that a shouting match ensued. "I think this could help matters, and KLC is a tireless advocate for efficient and effective City government in Kentucky, and certainly understands the challenges and frustrations of local governance," Klein told the commission.
Commissioner Rains responded, "What matters are we trying to help Larry?"
"Communication. Collaboration. Cooperation. Understanding. Etc.," Klein wrote back. "Whatever matters the Commission would like to discuss and help."
Commissioner Williams let the public know that she would not attend in a post to her Facebook page. "It has been brought to my attention that the Kentucky League of Cities will be in town next week to to give an informal training on City Manager form of government," she wrote. "As a new commissioner I went to the KLC for three days of training on this subject, and I'm am fully aware of how this city should operate."
In part two, coming up Wednesday afternoon, a look at what led up to the verbal brawl at City Hall and the debate over whether too much demand is being made on the city manager by Commissioners Williams and Rains.
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Covington City Commission/RCN file