June 19, 2013 10:17:53 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
During Tuesday's city council meeting, Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens called on city engineer Kevin Stafford to explain three invoices due from the city. The documents were linked to Micken's former election opponent Susan Mackay.
The invoices were part of the city's project bill it regularly pays to Stafford's employer, Neel-Schaffer. Mickens took issue with Stafford charging the city for documents requested by a citizen and not a city employee. The three invoices from the month of April add up to $141.40.
After several minutes of discussion, Mackay, who had not been in attendance, entered the municipal complex courtroom, approached the podium and offered to write a check to cover the invoices before being restrained by security and told by Mayor Robert Smith to sit down.
Stafford ultimately agreed to drop the three invoices from the bill at the city's request. Mackay later said she didn't know her requests to Stafford would create a bill for the city.
The invoices were $84.84 for a paving review of Ward 2 streets, including Lehmberg Road, $14.14 for new ward maps and $42.42 for a request to meet regarding the detention pond on Lawrence Drive.
Mickens' discussion item on the bill was a late addition to the board's policy agenda. After receiving explanation from Stafford on what Mackay requested, Mickens asked Columbus Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong if it was normal procedure for the city to front the bill for information requested by citizens.
"The mayor and I met with Mr. Stafford about this and our concern was that there apparently had been, according to Kevin, many people over the past several years that have contacted (him about public information documents)," Armstrong said. "My suggestion was that if he has any requests from constituents, whoever they may be, they need to direct that to me or the mayor and we'll make a decision."
Mickens then repeated the question before city attorney Jeff Turnage informed him it's up to the council to set parameters of what city employees are authorized to do without permission.
"I know we have an open public records policy, so normally the person seeking public record would fill out a form and serve it on (Chief Financial Officer Milton) Rawle," Turnage said. "As far as whether he should bill for what services, I would think it's up to ya'll to set the ground rules."
"So what you're saying is no ground rules have been set?" Mickens replied.
Smith then volunteered to answer Mickens' question.
"I asked to meet with Mr. Stafford along with Mr. Armstrong. I didn't agree with how it was handled," Smith said. "My request to Mr. Stafford ... (is) we hope it does not happen again and we do not expect it to happen again in the future."
"In our conversation what we decided in the future when constituents call and ask for information ... instead of directly responding back, I will forward those over to David," Stafford added.
Councilman Kabir Karriem said those concerns should be forwarded to the ward representative of the person making the request.
"Each one of us (is) elected by the people of Columbus and we represent the wards. It just looks like if there's a constituent out there that needs some type of engineering help, proper protocol would come through their representative, which would be one of the councilmen," Karriem said. "I would hope as we proceed that if there is a constituent out there calling an engineering company that they would first get in touch with their representative, not so much Mr. Armstrong or the mayor, but their councilmen. I think that is the correct way to handle this. For me to see a citizen call and the city was billed for it, that's interesting."
Mickens then asked Stafford why he was not notified when Mackay made her requests. Stafford said he tried to be transparent to the council by including her name with each item, adding that the $14.14 charge for the new ward maps was actually a request from director of federal programs Travis Jones and code enforcement officer Derrick Nash to be broken down and printed out for their use. He simply emailed Mackay a copy of the ward map sent to him to be printed, which was why her name was listed with the item.
"I would rather have her name in there and be transparent to ya'll than leave it out all together and not tell you what's going on," Stafford said.
After his explanation was when Mackay entered the room and attempted to write the check. Little discussion was held afterward and no action was taken.
Mackay later told The Dispatch she was watching the meeting on television when she heard her name mentioned in board discussion.
"That's when I saw that they brought my name up and there was a bill. I didn't know anything about it. That's when I came down here," Mackay said. "The more they talked about it and the more they were trying to drag my name through the mud, I said, 'Well, I'm going to come pay that bill and we'll just stop this right here so the city doesn't have to pay a bill that has something to do with my name.'"
One of the items in question was related to the detention pond, which was a project started by Mackay's late husband and former Ward 2 councilman Doug Mackay. The project was intended to relieve flooding issues in East Columbus. She said she'd met with Stafford and other city officials to view the pond and assess whether or not it was operating properly in light of Mickens suggesting during a community meeting earlier this year that it was not and that the city needed to decide on another flood mitigation option for the area. Had she known her name would end up on the report, she said she would have paid out of pocket for documents and meetings.
"I wanted to pay the bill because here they were broadcasting it all over everywhere and they were raking my name through the mud because I knew to call the engineer," she said. "I don't want the city to have any problems because of me."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.