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Recalling Marion’s own Watergate

Much confusion exists around an attempt by Marion’s mayor, his wife, two of the city treasurer’s relatives, one of the city’s highest paid employees, and a sixth person to force the city to spend $4,000 to $5,000 on an election that, if successful, would cut just six months off the term of a city council member.

Under law, recall elections are allowed only if a public official has been convicted of a crime or fails to perform his or her duties. Allegations are submitted to the county attorney, but court rulings forbid the attorney to decide whether the allegations are true or have merit — even if they are patently false.

Voters end up being the jury, deciding whether the charges have any merit. And they are summoned if a petition is signed by 201 voters asking that the “jury” be convened. Convening they jury is what a petition currently being passed seeks.

So are the allegations valid?

The first contends that council member Ruth Herbel violated the state’s Open Meetings Act via a text message.

When the newspaper asked to see the message under the Open Records Act, the city denied having a copy. After much research, a copy of a text she sent at the precise time to the precise people identified in the allegations was obtained. It consists of one word: “Thanks.”

The message was in response to a notification about a later-abandoned plan for an all-night blackout and about how the city had coordinated with St. Luke Hospital and warned citizen by taking out ads.

Rather than being guilty of violating the Open Meetings Act, Herbel was guilty of being polite, of doing her duty, and of accidentally hitting — as many of us have done — “reply all” when responding to a text.

The second allegation was that she violated her oath to defend the U.S. and state constitutions and faithfully discharge duties of her office by revealing information from secret sessions of the council.

The allegation alleges that some of the sessions involved attorney-client privilege. That’s false. A check of city minutes reveals that none of the sessions were called for that reason. They couldn’t. The city attorney wasn’t present and apparently hadn’t even been consulted about the procedures involved — something that council member Chris Costello appeared to lament in refusing to second a motion to fire city administrator Mark Skiles.

Herbel never has said publicly what discipline she thought might be appropriate for Skiles, who admittedly did some bad things. What she objected to was that proper procedure was not followed in firing him. Council members were denied an opportunity to see evidence. He was denied a formal hearing. Provisions of his contract, calling for six months’ pay and nine months of benefits if he was fired (as he was) without cause being stated, could and have led to a considerable financial obligation for the city.

To top it off, the sessions in which the council considered the case against him actually did violate the Open Meetings Act by failing to provide a clear and concise topic to be discussed beyond the overly vague “personnel” excuse the city used. State law and attorney general opinions are clear on this point, and the council was warned of them before convening behind closed doors.

Most important, no law — state or city — imposes any sort of requirement gagging elected officials from disclosing what goes on beyond closed doors. This, too, isn’t debatable. It’s made abundantly clear in numerous opinions and writings by the attorney general’s office.

So Herbel broke no law. She was in fact doing her duty as an elected official by warning the public that the city had failed to follow procedures so dramatically that taxpayers could be left holding the bag not only on contractually required payments but also for potential damages in a lawsuit.

She was the only council member with the courage to become a whistleblower and prevent the city from covering up how the mayor had withheld evidence, squelched warnings, and failed to consider financial implications and ultimate fairness.

She’s the hero, not the villain.

Any citizen who was lied to or strong-armed into signing the petition seeking her recall can withdraw that support by sending a letter to County Clerk Tina Spencer, thereby helping save the city the $4,000 to $5,000 cost of a recall that would accomplish little.

One thing the petition does accomplish is that it prohibits a second recall effort. Despite the fact that he did violate ethics rules in discussions about transfer of a police dog, the mayor is immune from recall because only one petition may be circulated at a time.

Truth is, a committee had considered recalling the mayor but decided not to so as to spare the city the expense of an election that would cut only six months off his term. Such civic-minded thoughts apparently never occurred to those challenging Herbel — and, by extension, this newspaper.

In a social media post last week, the mayor’s wife bragged — wrongly — that recalling Herbel would “silence” this newspaper. Like a Watergate conspirator, the mayor and his cadre apparently have an enemies list and are using recall as their White House plumbers unit to silence any voices other than their own.

Voters stood up to such petty bullying in rejecting Charter Ordinance 22 by a 10-1 margin. It’s time to do the same with the recall drive.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified Feb. 16, 2023

 

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