Crocker city administrator keeps her job — for now
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009 10:51 pm
Crocker City Administrator Joyce Peterson listens to comments about her future at Monday night's city council meeting.
CROCKER, Mo. (Jan. 12, 2009) — An announcement in the Waynesville Daily Guide that Crocker City Administrator Joyce Peterson might be terminated brought a packed house to Monday night’s city council meeting.
After adjournment, the audience became raucous enough that Police Chief Robert Ishmael asked and received permission from Mayor Jim Morgan to clear people out of the building after some audience members threatened others with violence. No physical assault took place inside or outside city hall, Ishmael said, and no one was arrested or charged with a crime.
However, city council members said there was no reason for the public outcry and said there’s no truth to rumors that they had already decided to terminate Peterson, or that they had agreed among themselves to replace Peterson and hire another person for her position.
“We’re a little confused where this information came from about this abrupt termination when there was absolutely no vote in our last meeting to terminate Joyce,” said Alderman Kim Skaggs-Henson. “When that was put in the paper, that was absolutely wrong, and that should not have gone in the newspaper.”
Crocker businesswoman Donna Newcomb acknowledged giving the Daily Guide an announcement that Peterson’s termination was on the agenda.
“What I’d like to know is what’s true and what isn’t true,” Newcomb told the aldermen. “When you hear gossip which is ugly, I don’t like believing it about people I have known all of their life since most of them were quite young. I don’t like what I hear that the council wishes to do to someone who has spent 22 years in Crocker serving us. If that’s not true, I’d like to have someone tell me.”
Newcomb also said the issues are broader than the city administrator’s job and the budget.
“This is not your building; this building belongs to the city,” Newcomb said. “There has been a lot of gossip and it’s also on the internet and that I hate. I love this town, I love people in it, I married one of them, and I’m not proud of what I’m hearing about city hall, and if there is any hanky-panky going on, let’s clean it up.”
Speaking after the public session, Newcomb said her reference to “hanky-panky” involved moral rather than financial issues, but said she wasn’t accusing Crocker’s elected officials of moral problems.
Skaggs-Henson said the rumors of Peterson’s planned termination are either exaggerations or entirely untrue.
“How this got out, I don’t know. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s false information,” Skaggs-Henson said. “We discussed the budget and we discussed things that could possibly be done. Was it mentioned that we may have to look at terminating that position? Yes it was. Was it voted on that we were going to terminate that position? No it was not, absolutely not.”
Peterson said she first learned about her possible termination through a phone call at her home.
“Someone called me at home and said — and I’m not going to say who said — that I’m going to be terminated at the next meeting,” Peterson said. “I came in, I asked the mayor, I said, ‘Confirm or deny,’ and he confirmed.”
That surprised Skaggs-Henson, who then questioned Morgan.
“That you confirmed?” Skaggs-Henson asked. “I’m the one who said that we need to let our auditor come in and present these findings to the council and to the public and go from there on what we need to do. There was nothing that said that this termination was definitely going to take place.”
Prior to hearing from Newcomb, council members heard a presentation by their auditor, Marshall Decker, reporting that the city’s financial condition is approaching critical levels and must be addressed soon.
“I’m the one who said that we need to let our auditor come in and present these findings to the council and to the public and go from there on what we need to do. There was nothing that said that this termination was definitely going to take place,” Skaggs-Henson said.
Newcomb said it’s wrong to even consider terminating a long-term employee such as Peterson.
“Why, after all these years, would we turn around and terminate her?” Newcomb asked. “There’s an old saying between us accountants … last hired, first fired. Now, I would like to know why an experienced individual that has had her job for 22 years and worked for this city, why she would even be considered to be terminated?”
Skaggs-Henson said she’s been told by the city’s auditor that cities the size of Crocker generally don’t have city administrators and the city can likely get by with a smaller staff.
“It wasn’t, ‘Let’s terminate Joyce and hire somebody else for that position,’” Skaggs-Henson said. “If it was going to be terminated, it was going to be eliminated.”
“And no one else was offered that job?” Newcomb asked.
“I am not lying to you; I took an oath to tell the truth as a councilperson,” Skaggs-Henson replied.
Responding to audience questions, Skaggs-Henson confirmed that Peterson’s position wasn’t the only Crocker position considered for elimination.
“I just think that mentioning terminating Joyce has been singled out among all the things that we talked about,” Skaggs-Henson said. “I’ve known Joyce my entire life. Do you think that I just set here and said, ‘I want to fire Joyce?’ No! It was one of many things that was looked at.”
Newcomb said she understands budgets from her experience as an accountant but doesn’t understand why Peterson, who had been the Crocker city clerk for many years before the position of city administrator was established, would be terminated if her position were terminated.
“Somebody had better rethink what kind of job she had prior to becoming administrator because she did that for the city of Crocker,” Newcomb said.
Some audience members asked if there is a law against releasing information discussed in closed session. City Attorney Ronda Cortesini told the council members that she works for the city and would answer questions only from the council, not members of the audience. However, Cortesini agreed leaking information isn’t proper.
“What goes on in closed session should not be discussed in the public,” Cortesini said.
Skaggs-Henson said widespread rumors in the community and posted on internet websites are not helpful.
“This is what we get as a result of the rumor mill,” Skaggs-Henson said. “I know it’s also on the Internet that (Alderman) Stroberg and I are related and we’re not related.”
Stroberg confirmed that rumor is wrong.
“I have never been related to Kim and I don’t know where that came from,” Stroberg said.
Some audience members questioned the way elected city officials were discussing city business.
“Does the city council have any power at all unless they’re in council?” asked resident Melvin Dochterman. “Are they allowed to have meetings outside of meeting in here? … Can you go to Applebees and have a beer and talk about city business?”
Aldermen responded that on a five-member city council, two members of the council could do that, but not three unless minutes are taken because that would amount to a quorum of the council.
Some audience members took aim at Alderman Jim Patton.
“Jim, what gives you the right to jump on employees’ tails?” asked resident Chad Smith. “There is no power by the city council to do such a thing.
Patton denied trying to “jump on employees’ tails” or otherwise abuse employees.
Former alderman Bob Simpson asked why the city doesn’t have a budget committee to work on its financial problems.
“When I was on the board, we had a committee formed on the board to deal with budgets. Do you have a budget committee, or have you ever had one since you’ve been mayor?” Simpson said.
Morgan said the city doesn’t have a budget committee and attempts to form a budget committee in the past haven’t worked. Skaggs-Henson agreed that creating a budget committee is a good idea and has been recommended.
Resident Robert Peterson, who is not related to Joyce Peterson, said the city needs to focus on fixing its budget problems, not focus on personnel problems.
“We’re talking a lot about personnel issues. My major concern has to be the budget. I’d like to know where we’re going with resolution for the budget and how we’re looking at long-term for the community and what are we going to do as a community so that we support ourselves as a community and as a city,” Robert Peterson said. “If that means that you have to look at reductions in staff or whatever you have to do, the ultimate goal is to get the budget in consensus with the city itself. Is that not the goal? Then this personnel issue has to be dealt with through the council members, but the budget has to be the priority.”
Joyce Peterson’s husband Glen Peterson said other procedural issues related to the budget need to be addressed as well, including the lack of purchase orders to track expenses.
The city used to use purchase orders, Joyce Peterson said.
“We quit because we all got along and then we needed to reinstitute when all quit getting along and we just haven’t reinstituted,” Joyce Peterson replied.
That will change, according to the mayor.
“It will be reinstituted as of tomorrow,” Morgan said.
After nearly two hours of intermittent closed sessions and public comment sessions, interspersed with various other items of city business, aldermen confirmed that nobody would be terminated Monday but called a special meeting for 6 p.m. on Jan. 22 to consider budget issues.
“So when every one of these people walk out this door tonight and they come back tomorrow to pay their bills, the same staff will be here?” asked resident Bob Burroughs.
“So we dismissed this, now? We’re not worried about Joyce?” Newcomb asked.
“That is not the only issue,” Morgan said.
Some audience members asked why terminations would not start at the low end of the pay scale rather than the high end, and others asked that prior notice be given to the public if terminating an employee would be on the agenda of that meeting or a future meeting.
“Don’t have a closed meeting and bring up the subject of letting the administrator be terminated,” Newcomb said. “This is our lives here and our tax dollars pay for this building to be open.”
“If we do get to termination of jobs … I’d like to ask you to bring that to public knowledge out of consideration for the citizens,” Burroughs said. “The only way I found out about it was by reading the newspaper.”
Specific prior notice of a job termination probably won’t happen, however, based on Cortesini’s legal advice to the council that it would not be appropriate to discuss possible terminations in public.
“There is really nothing to discuss until the council has taken action, and they have not taken action,” Cortesini said. “They need to discuss these things and then they need to take action.”
However, Skaggs-Henson emphasized that she wanted to provide general information about the city’s budget condition to the public even if specific personnel solutions would have to be discussed in closed session. Skaggs-Henson reminded audience members that she had asked the city’s auditor to make his presentation in public before staff cuts were considered.
“I think it would have been wrong as a council to vote to terminate a position without the public being made aware that we even have these problems and that we were even considering it,” Skaggs-Henson said.