All formal complaints of unethical conduct by two Neosho City Council members were deemed “substantiated” Wednesday evening, and the Neosho Ethics Board has forwarded all the charges against Steve Hart and David Ruth for further investigation at a future board hearing.
That hearing will be scheduled after the board obtains special counsel to advise the board as it proceeds in the absence of Steven Hays, city attorney, who recused himself from the proceedings.
Bruce Campbell, the attorney representing both Hart and Ruth, charged during Monday’s hearing in which seven witnesses provided testimony in support of the various charges, that Hays had a conflict of interest by serving as counsel to the ethics board, when he was a possible witness to some of the charges, and as a friend to the complainant in the case, Derek A. Snyder.
Hays had not yet arrived when the board began discussion on hiring special counsel. Because Troy Royer, city manager, testified Monday that he reported an alleged assault by Hart to Hays, and that Hays was directly involved in a charge against both Ruth and Hart involving special counsel for the Transportation Development District, ethics board member Dr. Andrew Hamby suggested it would be a conflict of interest to continue with Hays as their counsel.
Member Lee Duran said she didn’t feel a change had to be made but would agreeable to do so.
Tim Lewis, board chairman, said, “I don’t want to see the city spend any more money. I don’t know where we are here; I’m pretty close here where I think I can make a decision on all these events here. I’d just hate to see us hire an attorney and add more expense to the city.”
Hays arrived while the board was discussing the issue, and read from a prepared statement that included, “…I feel obligated to prevent any type of distraction of the proceedings when the focus should be on those identified in the complaint itself. The integrity of the board and integrity of the ethics investigation process should be maintained without even a hint of impropriety.”
Hays continued that a fair and totally impartial decision should be made on the facts and only the facts of the case, and there is no room for even the suggestion of a decision being made on a perceived conflict of interest, and that after discussions with the city manager and mayor all concluded that it would be best for the city to name a special counsel to be utilized by the ethics board.
Hays advised the board that the city council could have a special meeting early next week, and a special counsel could be named after that. The board then unanimously approved a motion to hire a special counsel. It was the night’s only unanimous vote.
Having heard from witnesses against the two complainees Monday, the board again hoped to hear from Hart and Ruth, but Campbell explained, “It would be improper for them to give testimony at this stage.”
Without counsel, the board decided it could proceed with Wednesday’s mission to determine which, if any, of the charges were substantiated by testimony received Monday, and which would then be forwarded onto a hearing, in which additional testimony could be provided.
Duran stated, “I think everything we have here needs to go forward. We won’t know different until we hear from these two men here (Ruth and Hart).”
Lewis said he felt the board should not go forward with several of the charges; as golf course employee Gary Elam had testified to the board, “That he was not ordered by David Ruth on the golf course to fix or repair the damage as suggested.”
Duran disagreed and Hamby responded that Elam’s testimony was in conflict with documentation he provided the city manager at the time of the alleged incident: they also had Royer’s testimony about the incident, but he said they had not heard from the golf course manager.
“At this point,” said Hamby, “it may or may not, it hasn’t been quite substantiated, but it’s not worth dismissing.”
Lewis also felt the charge that Hart had tried to coerce Rick Hendricks with Empire District Electric should be dropped.
He said, “I asked Mr. Hendricks twice and he said it was between Empire and a private citizen. I understand there’s some reasons there why they didn’t want to get involved; I don’t blame them; I wouldn’t want to be involved either; but we have nothing to go on with that one.”
Duran responded that she would go forward with that charge, but was agreeable to dropping it, as it was not that major. Hamby concurred, and said it would be hard to hash out without Hart’s testimony. However, he mentioned a series of emails that provide speculation of some animosity. Though the weakest of the complaints, he said they have nothing to refute the charge.
“Hendricks’ testimony essentially was non-testimony; he did not confirm nor deny,” he said.
Lewis also has issue with the charge that Ruth polled other council members and then made a directive to city manager Royer to demolish the Combs house in Morse Park; as councilman Tom Workman had testified that he was not polled, and neither were mayor Richard Davidson nor councilman Charles Collinsworth.
Hamby stated that two people can perceive things differently, and though Workman said he had not been polled, he did have conversations with Ruth about the house; and then there was a text message to Royer. Lewis said all council members discuss issues, and despite the text message, he doesn’t see that as polling. As he continued, Duran spoke up, “Why do you think he sent: “Tom and Steve said tear it down?”‘
Hamby said the main point was not whether a poll of other council members was taken.
“I think that is was that Mr. Ruth was instructing Mr. Royer to take action, absent council resolution.”
Lewis responded that no action was taken, and that having served on a board previously, “I know I’ve made suggestions; you communicate with your leaders.”
Hamby concluded that ethics guidelines specifically direct council members to not go to city officials and instruct them to do something without formal council approval.
Lewis said the charge that Hart assaulted Royer is the big one, and that he felt the board doesn’t have a right to make a judgment on that, with no official police report.
“We are not a law enforcement investigative agency, I don’t feel we have the proper board here to investigate this because no one is required to swear under oath and to tell the truth under perjury.”
He concluded that if charges were to be filed and it was to be investigated and found there was an assault, then the board could properly proceed on that complaint.
Hamby said this ethics complaint isn’t so much about assault, but about coercion. He said it was about ordering the disbursement of funds outside the authority of city council. Hamby said he’d like to know if the airport manager could attest to that, and also whether the alleged assault took place. He said the board could talk to some people to find out more before concluding their investigation.
The board determined they will wait until special counsel is appointed, and will then schedule their next meeting.
The final step for the ethics board is to hold a hearing, in which they will determine if any of the charges are true. They would then send that information up to the city council, with any possible recommendations for disciplinary action, ranging from admonishment to removal from office. A simple majority vote of the three-member board would send the matter to council.
The city council does not have to adhere to any recommended disciplinary measures, and can mete out the punishment, if any, that it determines to be appropriate. Hays explained after an earlier meeting that since both Ruth and Hart are the subjects of the investigation, they would not be able to vote if the matter comes before city council. He said counsel would need a regular majority to enact any punishment, meaning all off the other three council members would have to concur.