Crocker city administrator hires lawyer, fights to keep her job
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Thursday, February 5, 2009 2:34 pm
Crocker City Administrator Joyce Peterson and Alderman Jim Patton discuss issues during Wednesday night's closed city council meeting.
CROCKER, Mo. (Feb. 5, 2009) — After waiting for more than three hours Wednesday night through a closed session for personnel matters, longtime Crocker City Administrator Joyce Peterson still doesn’t know whether she will keep her job.
However, she’s retained local attorney Tyce Smith, the former St. Robert city attorney who wrote the ordinance for St. Robert that Crocker later adopted as its own ordinance governing the role of the city administrator and procedure for termination. Smith, who served as St. Robert’s attorney for 12 years and has done extensive specialized litigation for a number of local government entities, said he chose to represent Peterson because of her background.
“People that have known her for a long time have asked me to do it. Normally I don’t do this type; I have enough experience in government to know what I’m doing. But she’s a lovely lady, she’s been here a long time, and some people I can’t say ‘no’ to asked me to represent her,” Smith said.
Peterson has served as city administrator since that position was created for her a half-decade ago, and before that served nearly two decades as city clerk. However, after a year of public turmoil over serious budget shortfalls and repeated closed sessions for unspecified personnel matters, Peterson she said she’s now ready to retire if the aldermen will permit her to reach retirement age.
“I would like to be able to stay until I retire, which would be in November,” Peterson said Thursday afternoon.
Being allowed to remain a city employee until January 2010 would help her with insurance issues, Peterson said, since she’ll be eligible for Medicare at that time.
Peterson said she hired Smith for his expertise on municipal law as part of her effort to stay in Crocker until she retires.
Smith said Peterson is guaranteed two months’ severance pay plus accrued vacation pay and sick leave, and the rules apply even if the city council votes to eliminate the position rather than terminate her from it.
“This ordinance is a specialized ordinance that is copied from St. Robert; it basically is an agreement with the city administrator that they have to give her notice and a 30-day public hearing, and then if there is a termination other than for dishonesty or some kind of really bad stuff, then she’s entitled to two month’s severance and they can suspend her with pay only for the time until the hearing,” Smith said.
The termination vote must be by two-thirds of the council without the mayor’s approval, or by a simple majority with the mayor’s approval. In St. Robert with an eight-member city council, a two-thirds majority would be six of the eight aldermen, but in Crocker with a four-member council, it requires three of the four aldermen to terminate the city administrator without the approval of Mayor Jim Morgan.
It’s not clear where Morgan stands on the issue. He resigned from the city council once last year when the Crocker controversies began, but was convinced to return. No public comments were permitted during Wednesday night’s city council meeting, two police officers were present to keep the peace after prior threats of physical violence, and Morgan’s only comment after the council returned to open session was that decisions would be made within 72 hours.
The next city council meeting isn’t scheduled until Monday, however. The agenda for Monday’s meeting has nothing indicating any plans for the city administrator position, though it includes standard lines regarding closed sessions for legal and personnel matters that are included routinely in Crocker’s agenda.
Smith said he wrote the city administrator ordinance that’s now used by Crocker because the main candidate under consideration at the time for the St. Robert city administrator position, Norman Herren, wanted clear language in place as a condition of accepting the position.
The language provides unusual protections for the city administrator, Smith said.
“When (Herren) retired as superintendent of the Dixon schools, this is one they built especially for him because of the unique qualifications. It’s been adopted here, but it’s a very unusual ordinance,” Smith said. “Normally, unless you adopt the statutory city administrator form of government, which is a specialized statutory form, an appointed officer is not given a public hearing unless it’s statutorily required and you just don’t do all these things (such as) severance pay. Normally they are at-will employees, and normally all you have to do is get the votes from the mayor and council to terminate.”
The voting majority on the council could change markedly in two months. Three of the four city council positions are up for election as well as the mayor’s post.
Mayor Jim Morgan, Ward I Alderman Jim Patton, and Ward II Alderman Kim Skaggs-Henson are all seeking re-election to two-year terms and Ward I Alderman Jeff Curry is seeking re-election to a one-year unexpired term, but all four face at least one opponent.
Morgan has two people, Linda Wilson and Raymond Towe, attempting to unseat him. Ward I resident Bill Laughlin filed against Patton on Jan. 12, but he withdrew on the last day of candidate filing and Lorie Layman then filed to oppose him instead. Skaggs-Henson waited until the last filing day to turn in her candidacy paperwork and she will be opposed by Herman Goodrich, who also filed on the last day. Curry faces a challenge by Tom Townsend for his seat.