Last week, the Neosho Ethics Board ceased its investigation into alleged unethical conduct by two city councilmen, claiming it’s legal authority under the city’s ethics code is usurped by the state constitution and statute, and by the city charter.
On Tuesday night, the Neosho City Council gave final approval to accepting the results of the April 8 municipal election, in which Neosho citizens overwhelming approved an amendment to the city charter that requires all city councils to maintain an ethics ordinance and to retain an ethics board to determine if violations occurred, and advise council of appropriate penalties.
Beginning the discussion prior to the three-to-two vote in which the two subjects of the ethics investigation, Steve Hart and David Ruth voted “no,” Richard Davidson, mayor, asked Steven Hays, city attorney, about the findings by special counsel Bill McCaffree, who advised the ethics board that the charter doesn’t give the ethics board authority to review complaints.
“By putting this in final form into the charter, we are in essence putting in the charter the authority of the ethics board to do things,” Davidson said.
While there may be a need to revise the Chapter 105 ordinance, Davidson said, “We know what we have today based on Mr. McCaffree’s opinion isn’t working; and since the voters have approved this we submitted it.”
Responding to the mayor’s question if any harm would come from approving the voter’s decision Tuesday night, Hays advised that the only potential problem would be if another ethics complaint were to be lodged in the next couple of weeks before council could finalize revision of the 105 ordinance, which would be at the June 3 meeting, or he said that could be expedited with a special meeting called in the days following the council’s regular May 20 meeting.
Hart then asked Hays if the new ordinance that the voters passed fixes the flaws that McCaffree said were in the city ethics code.
“It’s a charter amendment, not an ordinance,” Hays answered. “It goes a long way in Mr. McCaffree’s concerns: that, along with 105 revisions would probably satisfy his concerns.”
Hays said those were McCaffree’s concerns, adding that the majority of Missouri city attorneys don’t agree with the flaws McCCaffree cited in Neosho’s ethics code when advising the ethics board to cease their assignment.
“But certainly a charter provision goes along way to address the concerns that Mr. McCaffree had,” said Hays.
Hart then asked if changes would have to go back to the voters, and Hays responded that the changes to be made by council are to the 105 ordinance and not to the charter.
“The charter amendment,” Hays explained, “puts the burden upon the council to actually address the ethics ordinance, as it deems fit, and time-to-time.”
Amending Chapter 105.105 of the city Code of Ordinances was one recommendation the ethics board made to the council when discontinuing their investigation.
Davidson then picked up the explanation by saying McCaffree’s concern was that the ethics board had no authority to review elected officials, but by the charter being the city’s governing document, the vote by citizens to amend the charter, “It gives that authority in the amendment that was presented to the voters and passed overwhelmingly.”
Hays then reported to the council at the conclusion of the meeting that he had hoped to have a definitive answer Tuesday as to the progress of the ethics complaints filed against Hart and Ruth, but was unable to forge a meeting with Newton County Prosecutor Jake Skouby.
When ceasing its actions, the ethics board, under the advisement of McCaffree, recommended council refer alleged ethics code violations to the city prosecutor, and to refer alleged charter violations to the county prosecutor and attorney general.
“Since the ethics board’s report,” began Hays, “it’s been on everyone’s mind as to what is going to happen to that complaint. That complaint is still there.”
He said there were some suggestions in the report as to where such complaints should go.
“I think everybody understands,” he said, “that this going to the city court to be prosecuted by the city prosecutor is not something that is going to happen. It cannot happen under the circumstances.”
Hays hopes to discuss the issue with Skouby in the coming days so he can determine a way to proceed and announce that at the May 20 council meeting.
In other council actions, first reading was approved on amendment of Chapter 405 of the code of ordinances regarding off-street parking and loading that Dana Daniel, economic development director, said requires all new construction of single and double family homes include an asphalt or concrete driveway. Daniel said all other dwellings are now required to have that, and some complaints have been lodged by the gravel washouts that occur from unpaved driveways.
“Depending on the location,” Daniel said, “it can be significant where we have to have backhoes and street crews do some work to clean out drains at times; and its also an irritation to neighbors who don’t want gravel on their streets.”
Ruth asked Daniel if all city alleys were paved, wanting to ensure the city isn’t holding homeowners to a higher standard than itself; and Daniel responded there have been no complaints about the city, but there have been complaints about single and double family dwellings.
Also approved were three Federal Compliance for Aviation documents that Daniel said must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration every five years through the Missouri Department of Transportation. The council approved close out documents for the Community Development Block Grant that allowed the city to acquire and demolish condemned properties on E. Spring Street and a Missouri Development Finance Board disbursement request to pay the $73,013.80 extra cost for engineering incurred on that project.
The annual agreement with the Carthage Humane Society to accept stray animals captured by Neosho animal control was renewed; and Daniel said the city also has an agreement with Joplin, as they await the opening of the Faithful Friends Animal Advocates shelter that will allow lost and abandoned pets to be housed locally.
The council approved the addition of two new streetlights in the Neosho Heights subdivision, adding a monthly cost of $36.30 to the electric services agreement with Empire District Electric. The council also approved a letter of support, received from the Neosho Area Chamber of Commerce, that Troy Royer, city manager, said shows the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services that the city gives its blessing to the proposed 50-bed ClearPath Senior Living Facility at Oak Ridge Drive and U.S. 60.
The council approved seven bids, of $19,844.30 from Greens Pro for fertilizer at the golf course, and for $900 to rent a 40- by 80-feet tent from Weiser Tent Service for Celebrate Neosho.
Five bids were accepted for the public works department. Mike Hightower, superintendent, explained the $188,464.05 low bid of Intermountain Slurry Seal is for the first year of the street program, and the $147,848.10 bid from Swift Construction will allow completion of the 2014 street overlay project, including sections of South, Walnut, Spring and Riverside streets, and Daugherty and Cemetery Roads.
Hightower said Swift Construction won the low bid of $39,673.95 to pave a parking lot on Wood St. near the Civic. He said the bid of $39,997 for a tractor from Fritz Implement is about $2,000 above the low bid, but it’s a little bigger, and a better machine for the job, and worth the extra cost. Also approved was the bid of $17,885 from Garner to overhaul the engine for the city’s 1994 dump truck.
The council again will consider a request from citizen Dave Crocker, who approached city leaders in March after discovering that a property he owns was flooded by a broken city water main, but the city’s insurance refused to pay his damages, claiming the city was not negligent.
Royer asked for direction, stating again that Crocker would like the problem fixed, but did not want a legal battle. Hays advised council that if Crocker were to take legal action, their insurance carrier, MOPERM would be responsible for any expenses incurred in defending their judgment.
Davidson stated that council needed to find answers as to the cost of damages Crocker is seeking, compared to what they would pay on their deductible, to see if a solution can be found to right a wrong done to a citizen, whether or not the city is deemed to be negligent in the matter. Hays explained that an underground water line was broken, and the city promptly repaired that once the break was discovered. Though the city’s line caused damages to another, he said the insurance company deemed there was no negligence. Hays said the fact that the insurance company found no liability by the city is no assurance that a judge won’t find liability if Crocker were to take the matter to court.
Kevin Van Story approached council about a massive water bill, explaining his averages $12 to $15 monthly. Van Story said a leak developed under snow cover which was promptly repaired when discovered upon the melting of the winter precipitation. The bill for that month amounted to $1,250, and Van Story said he got ahold of the city manager and was told that city code mandates paying half the bill in such an instance. “That is beyond ridiculous;” said Van Story of receiving a bill for 100 times the normal, who went on to prod council to finally fix the city’s long-time massive water loss problem and to put a cap of 10-times a normal bill in such instances.
The council also recognized Crystal Merick from the finance department as the city’s employee of the quarter.