By Michael Howell
Stevensville Mayor Lew Barnett tendered his resignation, effective immediately, in a short letter submitted on Tuesday, August 23, that simply said he was “tired of the micro-management.”
In an interview Barnett, a retired police officer and former Stevensville Chief of Police, made it very clear that the micro-management problem referred to in his letter of resignation had to do with the constant interference in his job by Council President Pat Groninger.
Barnett recalled his first public statement after taking office as Mayor in 2010. He said the lines between the council and mayor had been intertwined over the past years and that he was dedicated to making that dividing line clear. He had the town attorney prepare a presentation to the council explaining the duties and responsibilities of the council versus those of the mayor. He said that made it clear that the town’s employees work for him and that no individual councilor had any authority over any employee nor could they make any decision about town business except as a member of a functioning council.
Barnett said that despite all the clarification and despite his insistence that it stop, Groninger still contacted employees behind his back about their duties and activities. He said he warned Groninger on numerous occasions but got no response. At that point he got a fellow councilor to accompany him as a witness and told Groninger to quit contacting the town employees.
“His response was he would talk to whoever he wanted to,” said Barnett.
Then there was the problem of who should be contacting the town’s attorney over legal questions. The law states that the Mayor and the Council shall request legal opinions from the town’s attorney. Barnett said the law was clear that no individual councilor had any authority to contact the town’s attorney for a legal opinion. Only the full council or the mayor had that authority. He said he had numerous conversations with Groninger about it.
Barnett recalled that at one time Groninger made repeated telephone calls to the town’s attorney without any Council direction or approval. Barnett said Groninger had the town attorney, Keithi Worthington, review and correct a draft of a document accusing then Councilman Clayton Floyd of certain violations of council rules and law. The document included a legal opinion by Worthington about the powers of the council stating that no individual councilor had any authority beyond what the council directs or approves. Groninger accused Floyd of stepping beyond his authority as a councilor and acting on individual initiative on town business. Floyd was censured by the council based on Groninger’s submission and resigned from office soon after.
But as a result, the question of who has authority to contact the town’s attorney became a question. At Groninger’s instigation the Council subsequently approved rules of conduct that allowed any town employee or any councilor to call the town attorney for legal advice.
However, when Councilor Dan Mullan returned from a government education seminar he raised the question of the legality of that rule since a municipality cannot make rules in violation of state law. The Council then voted to repeal the rule.
According to Barnett, despite all this, Groninger continued to contact the town’s attorney without direction from the council. When confronted about his activities, according to Barnett, Groninger’s response was that he would talk to her anytime he wants.
What pushed Barnett to his limit, he said, came after the August 22 town council meeting. He said that Groninger once again talked to a town employee about town business, telling him that he (Groninger) would not hire a certain person. Not only that, but the next morning, according to Barnett, Groninger was on the phone with town attorney Worthington about it.
“This has been going on for twenty months and I am tired of it,” Barnett said. He said that he does not have any authority over Groninger but the Council does. He said the council could have removed him from the Presidency or censured him like they did Floyd, but they did nothing.
Barnett said the theme has been consistent and repetitive as Groninger has focused on various individual employees and council persons and begun pressuring them until they quit.
“I’ve had to take him off boards because he is so disruptive and I had board members threatening to quit,” Barnett said.
Barnett said that the mayor has little power over a councilor’s activities, but the council itself does have some. But they were not stepping up to the plate. He said they were told that Groninger was violating the rules and they did nothing.
“Is Pat above being disciplined?” said Barnett.
Barnett said that the final straw that broke the camel’s back in this case was the lack of council support.
“I apologize to the people of Stevensville for having to resign without getting my job done,” said Barnett.
But he was proud of some of the town’s accomplishments under his tenure, especially the progress made with the budget and cash flow problems. He said that he wasn’t taking credit for it because it took the whole council and the help of all the employees to bring the town budget back into the black.
“We’ve made a great start,” he said, “but there is more to be done.” He said it would take team work and a lot of effort.
“But there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. He wished the town employees and the council members well in their future efforts.
According to state law, until a new mayor is elected, the council shall, by majority vote of the members, appoint a person within 30 days of the vacancy to hold the office until a successor is elected and qualified.
That appointed official will serve as mayor until a new mayor is elected at the next general election in November. Once elected and qualified, that newly elected mayor’s term of office is limited to the unexpired term of the person who originally created the vacancy. In this case that term would end on December 31, 2013.