January 22, 2014 10:43:00 AM
Nathan Gregory - email@example.com
Confusion over an item that did not get added to Tuesday's city council's agenda until councilman Joseph Mickens asked at the meeting for it to be added resulted in a testy exchange between he and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith.
Smith had not yet arrived at the meeting when Mickens asked for a discussion item on "the organizational structure for the city of Columbus" to be added to the end of the policy agenda. Vice-Mayor Gene Taylor, who was presiding in Smith's absence, called for a vote on Mickens' request, which passed unanimously.
After Smith took over the proceedings and Mickens' late addition came up for discussion, the councilman said he needed clarification after his call to chief operations officer David Armstrong to add to the agenda an item regarding a city organizational structure chart a prior council had discussed was not returned.
"It was told to the council that certain people don't answer to the council. We know that. We understand that. My question is who reports to the council?" Mickens asked Smith. "If the council wants something from a department head, do we have the authority to ask them and they're supposed to give us that information or can they withhold the information we ask from them? Do we go to the mayor? Do we go to Mr. Armstrong? Where do we go?"
After Smith asked him to be more specific, Mickens said he called Velma Woodard, Smith's assistant, to request the discussion item be put on the agenda.
"She said she couldn't do it because I have to see Mr. Armstrong or the mayor, so then I called Mr. Armstrong to get something put on the docket and it wasn't on here," Mickens told Smith. "Mr. Armstrong told me that you told him he couldn't put it on there. You told Mr. Armstrong in front of all of us that if the council wants something, put it on the agenda."
Smith said he told Armstrong there was no such city chart approved by the council and himself.
"If it hasn't been approved, we don't have an organizational chart," Smith said.
Mickens then asked if city human resources director Pat Mitchell, who he said still had that information, could pass it out to the council.
"She's welcome to pass it out, but it's not official because it has not been approved," Smith replied. "That's what (Armstrong) asked me. I said, 'The city of Columbus does not have organizational chart that has been approved by the mayor and city council,' and we do not as I speak."
The fact stood, Mickens said, that an item a councilmen asked to be placed on the agenda was not. City attorney Jeff Turnage then said it's Smith's duty as chief executive to carry out the policy set by the council.
"The council does not have the right to supervise day-to-day employees of the city, but they do have the right to observe what's going on and educate themselves in setting the policy," Turnage said. "I would think included in that right would be the right to obtain information. Any member of the council that needs some information should be able to get it from the department head."
Smith followed by saying he did not hear of an instance when a councilman had been refused a request to have an item added to an agenda when calling city staff to do so.
"This is nothing personal, trust me," Mickens said. "I'm just trying to get some clarification. Where do we go? Do we need to go to the mayor next time?"
"I think it's personal," Smith replied, "to be honest with you."
Mickens reiterated his question, adding, "Do we need to pull out the charter and tell what the charter says?" Under Mississippi's charter plan, municipalities are given a choice of municipal government forms. Columbus' is a mayor-council form, which authorizes councilmen to require any municipal officer to submit statements regarding job duties.
"If you talk to a department head and you don't get the satisfaction you need, I would say the next step would be to talk to the mayor," Turnage said.
"So what you're saying is if the council wants something on the agenda and Mr. Armstrong and the mayor decide not to put it on, there's nothing the council can do?"
Smith told Mickens he was "missing the point."
"If you asked me to have something added to the agenda, why not add it to the agenda?" Smith said. "Did you ask me to add the organizational chart to the agenda? Did you call me and ask me?"
"We (were) told we could ask you or Mr. Armstrong," Mickens replied. "So, I asked Mr. Armstrong (if) could he put this on the agenda tonight to discuss the organizational structure of the city. Not the chart, but the structure of the city. That's all I asked. What you're saying is we don't have the authority to ask."
Turnage reiterated that while the city passed a motion last year designed to limit the number of last-minute agenda additions, councilmen could still request an item be placed on an agenda during a meeting.
Smith then asked Mickens if the mayor is Armstrong's immediate supervisor.
"According to city policy, you are Mr. Armstrong's immediate supervisor," Mickens said.
"I know at the last meeting you had a problem with that," Smith said. "You said you were one of his supervisors."
"No, I did not," Mickens said. "I understand who Mr. Armstrong answers to, but in the meantime, he sets the standard for the mayor. The council, we pass on to you what to do with the structure, how to handle the city. The council has that authority, not the mayor. That's all I'm here to clarify this evening. I hate to ask somebody for something and they don't give it to me when I know he should."
Smith reminded Mickens about having been elected by a majority vote "whether (Mickens) voted for me or not."
"I'm going to be respectful to you and I expect you to be respectful to me. It's just that simple up here," Smith said. "If you want an organizational chart form, then you request an organizational chart form. There's a proper way to do anything."
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.