Those items were all defeated at Monday night’s Portsmouth City Council meeting where a capacity crowd overfilled Council chambers, spilling into the hallway.
Murray began her first official meeting by threatening Portsmouth City Council with misdemeanor charges.
Fifth Ward Councilman John Haas asked City Council to enter into an executive session to discuss the dismissal of three employees, the hiring of new employees — centered around a statute proposed by the Mayor to change the classifications of the executive department — and for Murray to obtain a raise to $65,000 a year. Additionally, they discussed the abolition of different positions within the city, as well as the creation of new positions in the city.
Portsmouth City Solicitor Mike Jones, said, “It would be my position, Ms. Mayor, pursuant to Revised Code, the Council can go into executive sessions for certain types of issues. One would be personnel, and for potential litigation purposes. From what Mr. Haas is saying this would fall within those particular parameters.”
Murray then warned City Council.
“Mr. President, I would like to go on record please to read Section 33 of the Charter, which says Council is not to interfere in appointments or removals. It states, ‘neither the Council or any of its committees or members shall direct or request the appointment of any to, or his removal from office by the Mayor, City Auditor, City Solicitor, or any of his or their subordinates, in any manner take part in the appointment or removal of any officers or employees in the administrative service to the city.
‘Except for the purpose of inquiry, the Council and its members shall deal with that portion of the service of the city for which the Mayor is responsible solely through the Mayor. That part for which the City Auditor and the City Solicitor are responsible solely through such officials, and neither the Council, or any member … shall give orders to any subordinates of the Mayor, City Auditor or City Solicitor, either publicly or privately. Any violations of the provisions of this section by a member of the Council shall be a misdemeanor conviction, which shall mean they will immediately forfeit the office of the member.’
“I bring that to the attention of the members because I think anyone who votes in support of the motion by Mr. Haas is in violation of this section of the Charter, and I will be filing charges of misdemeanor according to the provisions of this charter,” Murray said.
Murray first attempted to bring forth a two-part ordinance dealing with the city paying for the renovations of her office in the amount of $17,500, piggybacked with the purchase of a truck for the City Service Department in the amount of $56,900, totaling $73,900 for both expenditures to come from the city’s CIP (Capital Improvements) surplus.
President of Portsmouth City Council David Malone asked if the two items should be separate ordinances.
“Actually no,” Murray said, indicating she had spoken with City Auditor Trent Williams on how to approach this, but since the year end report is not out, she would have it sometime next week.
“But the last report that I have from the Auditor showed that we have a Capital Fund balance from 2009 of $1.125 million. These are Capital items; they should come out of the CIP budget. He (Williams) indicated they should be in the same ordinance.”
Murray said when she walked into her office the first day she noted heavy smoke damage to the ceiling, carpet and soft goods because she said there had been smoking, which is against the law, in that office, as well as a lack of heating source, and the presence of mold, prompting her to set about to have repairs and some replacements done to the office.
“In Section II it says the Mayor is hereby authorized to enter into contracts, but I have already seen work started down there,” Third Ward Councilman Nicholas Basham said. “Have there been any contracts or advertising?”
Murray responded, “There are situations where the Mayor has authority to go ahead and enter into contracts to begin initiation of work. Some requirements I have to bring back for authorization. The decision that I made was that we need to get into our office. We couldn’t because they were smoke-filled, which is against the law. Smoking was taking place in the offices and I couldn’t breathe in the office … I need heat in my office, and we needed the offices cleaned up for the public,” Murray said. “In advice and discussions with the Auditor, the first time that I could communicate with you, was in the packets that I gave to you this weekend. Tonight is the first time that I could ask for any action.”
Basham said he would prefer to see more of a comprehensive plan involving the city building, including the Police Department.
Basham said he recently toured the Police Department where he found conditions unacceptable.
“Instead of throwing money here and there I would like to see more of a comprehensive plan before we start fixing corners and bits and pieces,” Basham said.
Murray indicated she will be bringing that information back to Council in the future when budget discussions are being conducted.
City Council voted 4 to 2 to defeat the ordinance.
Murray then asked to bring the issue up at a conference session following the legislative meeting Monday night.
However, Malone continued to reiterate there was no conference agenda, so there would be no conference session.
“My office has serious work to do,” Murray told Council. “To make this a political issue, it’s a slap in the face to the public. Irrespective of people who may have lost their jobs, my job as Mayor, according to the Charter, no matter who reads it — it is written so that lay people, even I can read it, even the people in the audience can read it — clearly states that the administrative function of this city lies in the office of the Mayor. Irrespective of who won and lost, this comes down to the people’s business. I am telling the people that I cannot conduct their business until I have an office with heat in it, the smoke removed from it, and we have mold to get out of it and paint and carpet on the floors.”
Murray said former Mayor James Kalb had in the 2010 budget an amount allotted in the amount of $10,000 for furniture.
“However, I have already spoken to a local furniture company to see if he would be willing to work with us so we can buy that at cost, or cost plus 10 percent to cover his freight cost,” Murray said. “Irrespective of politics, the public has a right to have a properly functioning office for it’s Mayor.”
For nearly two hours, several members of Council were at loggerhead with Murray on an ordinance creating three new positions and the rate of pay for those jobs.
Tied to that ordinance would be a raise in pay from $59,970 to $65,000 for herself, because the City Charter calls for no department head to make more money than the Mayor.
In the beginning, Murray promised the new Commissioner of Engineering and Public Services, Jeffrey Peck, a salary of $70,000, but said she was able to get him to come down to $65,000.
“As I explained in the memo to you that covered these items, this is establishing three new positions in the Mayor’s office, to include a Commissioner of Engineering and Public Services at a salary of $65,000, and Assistant Commissioner of Engineering and Public Service at a salary of $50,000, and a Chief of Staff at $49,800,” Murray said. “The Solicitor and I were discussing the issues surrounding my desires to have a new Commissioner of Engineering and Public Services. I presented a brief bio to Council about Mr. Peck.”
Murray then discussed Peck’s credentials, explaining his background as a civil engineer.
“My concern with this is, once again, we put the cart before the horse,” Portsmouth City Solicitor Mike Jones said. “Miss Mayor you just stated that you hired Mr. Peck to be the Commissioner of Engineering and Public Services. My concern with that statement is that there is no such position within the city of Portsmouth of Commissioner of Engineering and Public Services that has any salary attached to it. That’s not to say that the Mayor doesn’t have the authority to hire or fill positions that have been vacated, that we currently have a salary ordinance for. The Mayor is absolutely within her discretion to come forward with this ordinance and request that these positions be put into place. It appears that since this gentleman has been hired, we’ve already made a decision — now we are asking for Council approval.”
Malone at one point proposed that Murray take a salary increase of 3 percent and then set her current rate of $59,970 for Peck.
When that suggestion was made, Peck, sitting behind Murray shook his head “no.”
“Again, I have to go to the position that we had an election. The people spoke. The people do not want things run like they have been run,” Murray said. “People are writing letters and e-mailing, and calling, and they are saying the silent majority is with you. You are making the changes nobody had the guts to make. We have been doing this for more than 30 years. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re not hearing that. All you’re hearing is from a bunch of disgruntled past employees. I’m charged to run this government, and what you are doing by telling me that you think I can have a qualified civil engineer do the work of this government then you think I can get that for $59,000 is absolutely not within your purview.”
Some City Council members continued to hammer away at what they perceived as a lack of a plan by Murray.
“I don’t like the fact that you are coming to us saying that you want these positions created,” Basham said. “I don’t care who fills the positions. As a member of Council that is not my job. But you are telling me to create this position. Yet we don’t even know what the job description is going to be. I would really like to see a plan. Bring me a plan to show me what you are going to combine, so I can see it on paper. I would have no problem with it.”
When voting finally occurred, Council voted 3 to 3, which means the ordinance failed to get a first reading.
Council told Murray she could bring the ordinances back in the future, which she pledged to do.
FRANK LEWIS may be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232