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Blocked Aldermen, Staff Resignations and an Empty Chair
Rabbit Hole No. 1
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It was 1975. I was only six, maybe seven years old. But I still remember sardonically singing…
“Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?
Why can't we be friends?”
- from “Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War.
Why? Because I’d just had my heart broken.
Back then, things generally made sense in a person’s social life: Give a girl a valentine. Girl rejects valentine. “But we can still be friends!” Message received.
There were norms. Even seven-year-olds understood them. And it had been that way since Genesis. Until Facebook came along and ruined the definition of the plural noun “friends” for every living thing on the entire planet.
Dropping Like Flies
Ever have the feeling that everyone in the room knows exactly what’s going on? Everyone, that is, but you?
Earlier this summer, Ward 1 alderman Tyler Kelly resigned from the Willard Board of Aldermen. Within the past few months, several key city staff have resigned, as well. Some residents have mentioned and/or questioned the resignations on Facebook. And Scott Stewart, owner of Pizano’s, asked about the resignations during citizen input at the August 29th aldermen meeting. Audio of Mr. Stewart is linked here:
Are the resignations of Alderman Kelly and key city staff somehow connected? Some seem to think so.
What do I think?
Well, after attending the board meetings for almost an entire summer, I’ve found the aldermen, the mayor, and city staff to be likable and polite. And the current situation is certainly not what I wanted to write about when I began attending meetings. I’d hoped to write about the effects that corporations and federal and state government have on residents of small towns. But, for now, I guess that will have to wait.
Anyway, I attend the board meetings. I take notes and record the audio. I even previously served as an alderman. And, despite all that, I still have no idea what’s going on, or if anything is even going on at all.
To be clear, I’m not saying that I have a difficult time following the meeting agenda or the issues being discussed. It’s not that. Rather, it’s this:
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
There seems to be an unspoken undercurrent of something ‘not quite right’ within city government. It flows almost imperceptibly past your eyes and ears, and it never lasts quite long enough to be able to examine it or find its source. And, afterward, you’re left wondering if the feeling might have just been your imagination. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.
Occasionally, the undercurrent briefly rises to the surface, as it did at a meeting in late-August during an exchange between Mayor Samuel Snider and Alderman Landon Hall regarding the search for a replacement alderman. Hall stated that he is “blocked” by the mayor on Facebook. And if that weren’t odd enough, the minutes from the meeting state that “all Aldermen” and others are blocked from the mayor’s personal page on Facebook, not just Alderman Hall.
Now, I don’t know if it’s true that the aldermen are blocked by the mayor on Facebook, but I do know one wouldn’t have learned that piece of information from Alderman Hall’s actual words during the meeting. I guess it’s possible that what appeared in the meeting minutes was merely a mistake of interpretation or a transcription error. But I wonder if instead that information is something well-known to everyone who sits at the dais. And, as a result, the words “all Aldermen” unconsciously slipped into the minutes in an “everybody already knows” sort of way.
From looking at the mayor’s personal Facebook page, it appears that I’m not able to send him a friend request and only have the option to follow his public posts. But that isn’t the same thing as being blocked. As far as I know, when another Facebook user adds you to their block list, you are unable to find or see their profile at all. On the other hand, my wife’s account IS able to send the mayor a friend request. Why her and not me? Maybe the mayor’s Facebook settings strictly limit his audience and who he interacts with. Maybe I sent him a friend request in the past and he denied it. And maybe when Alderman Hall and the meeting minutes referred to “blocked”, they simply meant “not publicly accessible to everyone”. I don’t know. All I know is that we did not have these problems in 1975.
Earlier in the meeting, the aforementioned undercurrent could also be felt during the minutes-long silence from the aldermen as they quietly considered the mayor’s recommended candidate for the open seat. And it could be felt again in their lack of a response when the mayor asked for advice toward the end of the meeting.
So maybe there is something going on. Or maybe it’s just normal small-town politics. Or maybe I’m just imagining things.
Rumors and Resignations
Either way, here’s what I know about the recent resignations and the open alderman seat:
(1) I had to call former Alderman Tyler Kelly at work. I didn’t have his cell #. He asked if I could call back at lunch. When I did, Tyler said that he’d resigned “100% due to personal reasons”.
(2) Former City Administrator Brad Gray’s last day was Friday, September 16th. I called city hall the day before to ask Brad why he had decided to resign. I left a message, and he returned my call Friday morning. Rather than actively looking for a new position, he explained, a “better opportunity found him”. And, after he told me more about it, it certainly does look like an exceptional opportunity. Brad shared that he was very happy that it will allow he and his family to remain in the Willard area he loves.
(3) Via email, City Clerk Jen Rowe told me that she has not resigned despite many rumors to the contrary; she has merely changed her hours and will continue to act as city clerk. I was glad to hear that, as Ms. Rowe does a great job of providing detailed meeting minutes. That’s very helpful, because thorough minutes make what occurred at past meetings much easier to reconstruct for anyone not in attendance.
(4) Former Planning and Zoning Director Randy Brown is probably around 60 years old, which is close to retirement age. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good phone # to be able to call him and ask his reason(s) for resigning.
However, at the July 11th board meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about a long-standing issue with an abandoned house in Willard Hills. Legal hurdles and staffing shortages were preventing the issue from being addressed in a timely manner. During the discussion, Randy stated, “I’m very frustrated, you guys. I like doing my job.” And that the issue was ongoing “not because I’m not doing my job, I’ll tell you that right now. And if you say I’m not, you can have my keys.”
At the time, I remember wondering if he was actually exasperated or merely making a joke. Maybe he had already resigned prior to the July 11th meeting. I’m not sure. But it was the last meeting he attended.
(5) I did not speak with former Director of Public Works Ray Lynch. Mainly due to a lack of time, and spending what little time I did have unsuccessfully trying to find a contact number. But Justin Sorgen, the new director, has been on the job for well over a month.
I’ve heard that Justin, new Director of Planning and Zoning Scott Hayes, and others are all strong, highly capable replacements.
Lastly, I’ve also asked city hall if they could provide, at their convenience, a list of resignations that have occurred during the past six months.
Shouldn’t Someone Be Sitting Here?
As for the open alderman seat, Missouri statute requires the following:
- the mayor to request a special meeting
- the mayor to find and recommend a potential successor to fill the vacancy
- the board to consider whether to confirm the potential successor (in my limited experience, this usually results in a motion and a vote)
- the board to give the mayor advice
- rinse and repeat until the seat is filled
On August 29th, near the beginning of the regular meeting of the Board of Aldermen, the mayor recommended Karie Johnson-Phillips as a successor for the open seat.
The first question she was asked, by Alderman Landon Hall, was how she had heard about the vacancy. Ms. Johnson-Phillips responded that she had heard about the open seat through a friend, that the mayor had posted about the open seat on Facebook, and that it was also reported on the local news. The only other questions Ms. Johnson-Phillips was asked by the five aldermen present were “Who’s your friend?” and “How long have you lived in Willard?”.
The aldermen did not ask Ms. Johnson-Phillips any follow-up questions about her qualifications or about her experience. However, they may have been relying on her paper resume for those answers. After a brief period of silence, they were still examining copies of her resume when the mayor himself prompted Ms. Johnson-Phillips to speak on her experience and qualifications, which she did at length, as can be heard in the audio below.
Unfortunately, at least from my perspective, getting to the bottom of how Ms. Phillips-Johnson had heard about the opening — rather than interviewing her for the open seat — seemed to be the main concern during the proceedings. That conclusion was reinforced by the exchange between Mayor Snider and Alderman Hall about Facebook that occurred near the end of the meeting, which I referred to above and link to further below.
While I agree that providing residents with adequate public notice of an open ward seat is a valid concern, the proceedings did not appear to give Ms. Phillips-Johnson a fair evaluation or any chance to fill the vacancy. But that is just my opinion. And others who were there may disagree.
For other opinions, I emailed the mayor and the five aldermen and asked if they would like to comment on the lack of a motion to appointment Karie Phillips-Johnson and the ongoing alderman vacancy. Only Alderman Sam Baird provided a response.
I had hoped to hear from Mayor Snider, too, to be able to include a counterpoint to Alderman Baird. I emailed the mayor’s city email address twice on two successive weekdays, but that’s been several days ago, and he has not responded.
Below is Alderman Baird’s response:
One Alderman Responds
“As you know, the Board of Aldermen usually has six Aldermen, each serving a two-year term. We are currently short one member, and we can continue to function with a minimum of four. It would be great to fill the vacancy, but there are only just over 6 months remaining in that two-year term. As Board Member, I am looking for an interim Alderman that can step into the position and immediately begin helping for only the next few months.
Recently retired Alderman Donna Stewart came forward and offered to do just that. She gives us the opportunity to fill the vacancy with someone who can hit the ground running. She’s knowledgeable about city business, she’s up to speed on the current challenges, and she’d be an immediate asset to Willard and the Board of Aldermen. No learning curve, no down-time getting to know how the city operates, and an immediate familiarity with Willard’s budget (2023 budget prep begins now). Because of her continued involvement with the City, she knew about and offered her services a week before Mayor Snider did his media event. Why Mr. Snider refuses to consider her is a question that remains unanswered. I’m unaware of any other candidate that can immediately step into the role with no down-time. For an interim appointment of a few months, that’s very important. The election in April will give anyone that wants to be an Alderman the opportunity to run for a full two-year term, and a chance to come to some meetings beforehand and get familiar with the process. I hope Ms. Phillips-Johnson’s undoubtedly frustrating experience (through no fault of her own) does not prevent her from wanting to stay involved.
I appreciate you reaching out and I hope more citizens take an interest in Willard City business. Everyone is welcome to our meetings and anyone can contact the city to get a copy of upcoming agendas or past minutes.
Ward 2 Alderman, City of Willard”
Below are highlights and timestamps from the section of the meeting to appoint Ms. Phillips-Johnson and the exchange between Mayor Snider and Alderman Hall.
To hear the audio, follow this YouTube Link and click "Show More" under the description, then select any of the timestamps for quick access. The timestamps are identical to those shown below.
00:14:08 – APPOINT KARIE PHILLIPS-JOHNSON TO THE BOARD
00:14:13 - Mayor Sam Snider says six people are interested in the open board seat, including former alderman Donna Garber-Stewart; the mayor chose Karie for the board to consider
00:15:32 - Alderman Hall asks how Karie heard about the open seat
00:15:42 – Karie says she heard about the open seat through a friend, that the mayor had posted about the open seat on Facebook, and it was also reported on the local news
00:16:25 - Alderman Hall asks on which Facebook page Karie had seen the posting for the open seat; was it the Mayor’s personal page or a Willard group page
00:18:20 - Mayor Sam Snider asks Karie to speak about her experience as a school board member at Springfield Lutheran School
00:18:29 – Karie also details her 28 years of experience as a teacher and administrator in education
00:18:55 – She discusses her experience on Lutheran School’s Day Committee
00:19:29 – The mayor thanks Karie; the aldermen quietly examine copies of her paper resumé
00:19:37 – Mayor Snider asks if the aldermen have any thoughts
00:20:00 – After the aldermen do not respond, the Mayor asks if someone would like to make a motion to vote on Karie; no motion is made
THE ALDERMEN CONTINUE TO QUIETLY EXAMINE THE RESUMÉ FOR SEVERAL MORE MINUTES
00:23:19 - Mayor Snider responds, “As much as I love silence…does anybody have any thoughts on this?”
00:23:25 - Mayor pro tem Corey Hendrickson, “There’s no…no thoughts and lack of a motion…[unintelligible] the item is dead and we move forward.”
--- THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN MAYOR SNIDER AND ALDERMAN HALL ---
00:42:48 - Alderman Hall asks where Mayor Snider posted about the open aldermen seat
00:43:55 – Mayor Snider responds that he posted it on his personal Facebook page and also did a local news interview
00:43:07 – Alderman Hall asks, “Is there any reason it wasn’t posted publicly other than the news?”; Hall then refers to Willard Facebook groups that are public
00:43:24 – Alderman Hall continues, “…being that I’m blocked on social media by you, I was just curious how any of the aldermen would be able to see anything like that, or anyone else that’s not friends with you on Facebook.”
00:43:32 - Mayor Snider, “I mean, clearly a lot of people saw it. It generated interest…That along with the news interview, I don’t really know how much more public you can get.”
00:43:45 - Mayor Snider asks why no motion for a vote was made on the “seemingly highly qualified individual” he brought to the board to fill the open alderman seat.
00:44:05 – “Does anybody have any…any reason why there’s no discussion on it?”
00:44:30 - “I’m open to recommendations, if anybody has any.”
Ten more seconds passed with no response. Eventually, the mayor moved on to the next item on the agenda.
A Chair Up In the Air
On September 12th, at the next meeting of the Board of Aldermen, the open seat wasn’t mentioned.
The mayor did not put forth another candidate to fill the seat, nor did the aldermen offer the mayor any advice on the matter. But, unlike the prior meeting where he’d received no response when he asked for recommendations, this time, the mayor did not ask for advice at all.
Nor has he requested a special session to appoint a candidate.
For now, the seat remains vacant.
Perhaps that will soon change.
I hope so.
As to whether there is some issue affecting board meetings and city staff…???
I don’t know.
But I feel like I’m the only person in the room who doesn’t.
Maybe I can find out on Facebook.
Picture attribution link: PublicDomainVectors.org