July 24, 2013 10:45:45 AM
Carl Smith - [email protected]
An impassioned plea from a state representative on the steps of City Hall, 19 residents' demands for transparency and a last-second recusal from Mayor Parker Wiseman could not save Chief Administrative Officer Lynn Spruill's job Tuesday.
In the face of considerable public pressure, the Starkville Board of Aldermen held firm by overriding a veto of Spruill's termination. The same five aldermen which supported the board's original July 2 action - Ben Carver, Lisa Wynn, David Little, Roy A. Perkins and Henry Vaughn - officially pushed the long-serving administrator out of her position Tuesday.
Aldermen neither went behind closed doors to discuss the personnel move, nor gave a public reason beyond Carver's admission that he "prayed about it" and "made his mind up years ago."
"This is what the Lord wants me to do," he said in the meeting. "We have the right under state law to craft and create ... the team we want to work with for the next four years. I hope as a community, we can move past this. You'll see great things in the next four years. The sky isn't falling."
City Clerk Taylor Adams is now charged with producing board agendas for any and all future meetings. The board did not name an interim chief administrative officer or set a timetable for filling the position on an interim or full-time basis.
"I'm amazed and stunned at the support I've received. There aren't enough words to thank them all," Spruill said after the board's override. "I hope (aldermen) will recognize the need to fill the position; and if they don't fill it, I hope they don't eliminate it."
Prior to the board's veto override, Wiseman recused himself from chairing the meeting. It is unsure who actually led the board in his absence.
The mayor cited a potential conflict between his friendship with Spruill and his ability to chair the meeting in an unbiased manner before leaving the board room. In typical situations, the mayor pro tempore, Perkins, would then chair the meeting and only be allowed to vote in tie-breaking instances. When asked for legal clarification on the proceedings, Board Attorney Chris Latimer cited three state attorneys general opinions - Ruhl, 2007; Russell, 1984; and Bryan, 2006 - and a Mississippi Supreme Court case opinion which contain language preventing state statute from forcing Perkins into the role since Wiseman simply declined to chair the board while still in city jurisdiction.
Due to press deadlines, the Dispatch was unable to pull and review these rulings.
"At this time, that's the most cowardly thing I've ever seen somebody do," Carver said after Wiseman left in reference of his recusal.
"Professionally and personally, it reached a point where I thought my ability to chair the meeting in an unbiased manner was in jeopardy. I have worked closely with Lynn every day for the last four years. She is someone I value as a friend," Wiseman said after the meeting. "It wasn't lost on me that recusing myself would make the override more difficult. I was intent on using every tool I had to try to keep the override from happening.
"I thought it was uncalled for," he added in reference to Carver's comments. "It's disappointing to hear, but we're all human. Sometimes this process brings about unfortunate comments."
Carver introduced the motion to override the mayor's veto and reduced it to writing. Perkins asked Latimer what the board should do next, and the board attorney referenced usual procedures - a second was needed for the motion to continue to a vote. Little then backed Carver's motion.
"It's not up to me to chair the meeting," Latimer reminded board members.
A roll call vote was taken by City Clerk Taylor Adams, and Carver's motion passed 5-2.
Latimer left City Hall at the meeting's conclusion before the Dispatch could clarify who was actually in charge during Wiseman's recusal. He did not return a phone call after the meeting.
Public commenters hammered aldermen for almost an hour before the vote, calling the board's previous action and how it handled the entire situation embarrassing, demanding accountability and supporting the embattled chief administrative officer's dedication to Starkville over two administrations.
In all, 19 public speakers took aldermen to task over the matter.
"Regardless of the action you take tonight, you've revealed to us, the citizens of Starkville, the stuff you are made of: it isn't pretty, and it smells bad. You've more or less lifted the veil of dedicated public servant that you've hidden behind and exposed your own personal ugliness," Ward 2 resident Milo Burnham said. "The five of you are a big disappointment, and what you did and the way you did it sucks."
Burnham's comments elicited enough public outcries that Wiseman had to gavel the crowd back into order, an action the mayor would repeat numerous times as the crowd cheered on speakers.
Another Spruill supporter, Judy Leonard, asked specific questions pertaining to the reasoning behind her termination. Wynn declined comment, Perkins said his vote stood and Carver discussed how prayer helped him make his decision.
Numerous commenters also chastised their aldermen for not answering their questions since the July 2 meeting.
Aldermen did find some support with three public commenters. Oktibbeha County GOP Chairman Marnita Henderson referenced a "silent majority" whose opinions were kept quiet by local media outlets, while Dorothy Isaac, a Starkville Parks Commission representative, told aldermen to "do what you have to do" and fulfill their elected duty. Ginger Williams Carver, who identified herself as Ben Carver's mother, lashed out at a lack of respect shown by other commenters.
"Ben, I respect you more tonight than I've ever respected you," she said prior to the board's vote.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch