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MOUNT VERNON — Just one meeting into the new session of Mount Vernon City Council and some council members are concerned with the direction they are being led behind closed doors.
“I work for the people and I don’t think the people are happy with what they are seeing.”
John Francis, 2nd Ward City Council
At the Jan. 8 meeting, chairman of Employee and Community Relations John Francis requested an executive session, “to consider discipline, demotion or the investigation of charges or complaints against a public employee of the Mount Vernon Fire Department.” The committee meeting was scheduled by administration and the wording, Francis said, was provided by City Law Director Rob Broeren 15 minutes before the committee meeting was set to start.
“When I read that, we’re already in chambers, we were ready to go,” Francis told the News.
Although he had some concerns prior, it was during the executive session, Francis said, that he began to feel uncomfortable about the validity of the executive session.
“Had this meeting been held two days after the incident report and the investigation started, before disciplinary actions, that would have been a huge difference,” said the Second Ward representative. “They could have said this is the route we are taking. That could have led to steering from council to say ‘I don’t think that’s good enough.’ But right now, we didn’t have any say. What was discussed [Jan. 8] was primarily what was discussed with the newspaper and there was no different information.”
Francis and new council member Chris Menapace, At-Large, said they were uncertain as to what to do when they began to internally question the information discussed in the executive session.
“I wasn’t sure where my bounds were after this was called,” Francis said.
“It was my first [meeting], I truly was feeling my way through the process,” Menapace said. “Once we got into the executive session, I began to challenge whether or not we should be in executive session. We were getting a report on what we already knew — a watered-down version of the (Mount Vernon News) newspaper article.”
Fourth Ward Councilman Jeff Gottke said he wouldn’t comment on what was discussed in the executive session, but would say he had his own reservations and wished he had pushed to have questions answered to his satisfaction.
“I was unhappy with way the discussion went and the whole outcome,” Gottke said. “I wish we had more time to talk. Maybe I shouldn’t have voted to leave executive session. I wanted more time to talk.”
Gottke said he knew there would be a steep learning curve in his new role as councilman.
“I knew the basics of how a city should work, now I have to match what I think should happen and what does happen,” Gottke said.
Francis, Gottke and Menapace all declined to provide specific details as to what was discussed in executive session, citing their desire to maintain the integrity of such meeting. However, information discussed in executive session is not required to remain private unless it creates an advantage or disadvantage during the sale of property.
“The Open Meetings Act does not prohibit the public body or one of its members from disclosing the information discussed in executive session,” the act states.
Francis fears administration’s call for the Jan. 8 executive session will create “a greater void, a bigger separation” between city residents, employees, administration and council. However, he has no intentions of getting weighed down by the mire and wants to turn the situation into an opportunity to be an advocate for the people he was elected to service — including the city’s employees.
“I work for the people and I don’t think the people are happy with what they are seeing,” Francis said. “I’ve been trying for the last two years to show myself as a people’s advocate. It really got deep when I kicked it off with the (drug) dealers and pushers.”
Now, Francis wants city employees to reach out to him if there are concerns or issues they feel aren’t being addressed by the supervisors or department heads.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a representative. You tell them to call me up, I’ll be your advocate, Francis said. I’ll take it to City Hall and tell them something has to be done.”
A call to Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Mavis on Jan. 9 seeking more information about the executive session has not been returned.