After resigning from the Vader City Council Feb. 13, former council member Linda Newton has described what she feels is an attitude of cronyism and back-door policy-making within City Hall as her reasons for stepping down.
First appointed last March to fill a vacancy created when former council member Lois Wilson resigned, Newton said she had begun to see what she felt were unilateral policy decisions being made without regard for those with differing opinions, causing her to feel uncomfortable remaining on the council.
“They’re trying to form that council out of yes people,” she said in an interview Thursday. “I turned out not to be a yes person, and that’s why I resigned.”
Among the decisions Newton said had not sat well with her were the approval of incomplete contracts by council members with the caveat Mayor Ken Smith could fill in the blanks at his discretion, including a recent interlocal agreement with Winlock for sewer maintenance services. (As a note, the same contract was presented again to the council Feb. 13 after Smith and Winlock Mayor Lonnie J. Dowell had agreed on the unresolved language with the help of their respective legal counsels.)
Newton said she is also displeased with the recent filling of a council vacancy left open by the resignation of former council member Janet Charlton, which had occurred Feb. 6 but was not made public by City Hall until the Feb. 13 meeting when the position was filled by resident Justin Olson, the son-in-law of Council Member Kevin Flynn.
Newton said it was inappropriate to conceal the resignation of Charlton and to confine the pool of appointees to what appear to her as family members and close friends, stating she is uncertain which “relative or church member” will be selected by the council to fill her position.
The circumstances of Charlton’s resignation had also been criticized by Council Member Andy Wilson during the Feb. 13 meeting, at which time he said City Clerk Jill Neilson had specifically been requested to publicize the open position, but was instructed by Smith not to do so.
“This is absolutely ridiculous,” said Andy Wilson during the meeting. “This is not a dictatorship or Nazi Germany. This is the United States of America, and every person in this city will be notified [of council vacancies], Mr. Mayor.”
Smith responded Vader had been acting within state law in the process used to fill the vacancy, stating it is the same process used both before he was elected and during his last six years in office.
“I think it’s inappropriate on the part of an elected city official to make an accusation that another representative is acting like a Nazi dictator,” he said. “I would like you to, if you can’t apologize, justify your statement by some state law that requires it to be posted for city application…I reject your inference that this is a Nazi dictatorship. We were following state law.”
According to RCW 42.12.070, a requirement is not in place directing cities to advertise a vacated council position, though it has been considered customary in other cities, including Winlock and Toledo, to solicit letters of intent from community members wishing to be considered for appointment.
Though the city’s legal standing may appear firm, at least in the case of Charleton’s vacancy, Newton said these sorts of practices could none-the-less be defined as unethical, and said Thursday it is her intent to contact the Washington Executive Ethics Board, as well as the State Auditor’s Office, to hold Vader accountable.
“When they first started out in Vader, they were wonderful for Vader,” said Newton of Smith’s administration, stating he had managed to help Vader recover from financial catastrophe experienced in 2010. “But now they’re getting to a point where their power is going to their heads.”
When asked on Friday to respond to Newton’s criticisms, Smith stated: “My immediate reaction is that I would not make any comment on them to dignify her inferences. They’re just baseless and without foundation in fact, so I don’t know where to begin.”
He pointed out the approval of contracts is a function of the city council and it is their discretion to leave unresolved issues to be determined by the mayor. He went on to defend Olson’s appointment to the council, noting Olson had been supported by unrelated council members in addition to Flynn, and received unanimous approval when appointed.
He again stated Vader was acting within state law when filling Charlton’s position, and said the council is free to amend city policy if they would prefer such vacancies to be publicized. He also noted it is his impression that calling for a wide pool of applicants would likely result in animosity and hurt feelings on the part of individuals not appointed to fill the position.
“The cities who do open the process up end up with a lot more drama,” he said.
When asked if declining to publicize Charlton’s resignation had been a breach of his stated goals to increase transparency in Vader’s governmental process, Smith said it was his impression transparency has been achieved by the city’s practice of responding openly to inquiries rather than necessarily publicizing every action it takes.
“If the media is interested in the affairs of the council members and their resignations, they are invited to attend the meetings,” he said. “Anything that involves city information is available to all residents and the media…I would refute the inference that we are being less than transparent with regard to the resignation of Janet Charlton.”
Smith concluded by stating, if there are problems arising from the way he executes the responsibilities of his office or the way City Hall is being operated, the ultimate power rests with council members, who retain the right to change ordinances and policies as they feel such regulations need to be changed.
It is expected Newton’s position will be filled by council appointment during the next Vader City Council meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall. Those wishing to be considered for the position are encouraged to seek out a sitting council member beforehand for nomination during the meeting.