Tension, toxic exchanges mar Council meeting

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

There’s been tension on the dais since the night Mayor Liz Branigan was sworn in last November, but it seemed to reach a boiling point Monday as Branigan and Council member Kathy Canady tested one another’s resolve throughout the brief meeting.

Two primary issues raised the ire of Canady, the first being a request by Branigan to move an item from the consent agenda to the regular agenda so that it could be discussed.

Items placed on the consent agenda are not open for discussion during the meeting, but are approved together in one vote. If a council member has a question or concern on an item on the consent agenda they can request it be removed and placed on the regular agenda, something Canady has done a number of times.

“Item E is a contract, which as I was reading over it I found it to be out of date and having spoken with some of the people involved it is not current and needs to be revised,” Branigan said before being interrupted by Canady.

“It is current, that’s why it is in there,” she said.

From that point forward, neither allowed the other to complete a sentence as tensions rose and Canady declared she would oppose any effort to move the item to the regular agenda for discussion.

“You’re asking that it be removed, so we need a way to remove it or not remove it and you don’t make motions so I don’t know how we do that,” Canady said.

Branigan called for the item to be tabled so the contract could be discussed and Canady responded, “That’s not your option.”

City Administrator Lacie Hale spoke up, saying a motion to remove the item would be needed to do so, with Canady again quickly speaking up.

“I’m not making that motion.”

She said she had no desire to move the agenda item, but after a few minutes Council member Gram Lankford stepped in and made the motion to move the item to the regular agenda.

Both Canady and Council member Liz Rundzieher refused to second the motion, and with Council members Tony DeYoung and Steve McIntosh absent, the motion died for lack of a second.

Lankford later explained why he chose to step in and make the motion to try and move the item to the regular agenda.

“The majority, if not all the things I do, or the questions I ask, are really just for the clarity of the public,” Lankford told The Independent. “I felt like if there was debate between council members or the mayor and a council member then it would be better for the public having more discussion on a particular item. It’s important for our citizens to understand each perspective. I hoped it would have gotten a second.”

When asked later by e-mail why she opposed the effort to remove the item for the purpose of discussion, Canady told The Independent, “The Mayor and staff make the agenda for the council. The council has the right to make changes at the meeting. The Mayor signed off on the agenda before we ever as council received it. This item was an update of a fully accepted agreement of this council. There was no need to move it.”

Branigan said in an interview Tuesday that she saw a number of issues with the contract that she felt needed to be discussed before it was approved, but without it being moved to the regular agenda that was impossible.

The agreement was with the Our Village organization for partial use of the Over the Hill Gang building located behind Parker’s Market downtown. The Council approved the use of the building last Spring, but due to COVID restrictions being implemented at that time never voted on the contract.

The second issue where battle lines were drawn was over when the Council would convene into executive session. The closed portion of the meeting generally appears at the end of the agenda, but Canady often requests that the Council go into executive session early in the meeting in the name of meeting the needs of lawyers and engineers attending the meeting for the closed session discussions. But those sessions often go one to two hours, and leave citizens watching or attending the meeting waiting until late in the evening to see the rest of the agenda addressed.

“We also have an audience online that can’t follow along because our meetings are so choppy and very often interrupted by executive session, which can go an hour or two long,” Branigan said of people waiting for the meeting.

“Well they’re at home where they can do something besides sit there and twiddle their thumbs like the people out here are,” Canady responded.

“Every time we’ve had to change executive session it’s because we have attorneys, not city attorneys, we have engineers that are not city employees, and I have asked repeatedly that when we have these people here that we have that executive session first,” Canady continued before being interrupted by Branigan.

As Branigan began to speak, Canady snapped, “I’m talking now,” before continuing. “What I’m recommending is we have that executive session first. Anything else that involves employees can be at the end.”

Branigan again tried to argue that operating under that plan would make it difficult for the community to attend or watch meetings.

“They have the right to watch on TV and they have the right to sit here while we’re taking care of business,” Canady said. “We were voted in to take care of this business.”

Canady, who was not elected to council, was appointed in July 2019 and earned another term last November when she did not draw an opponent.

The final vote Monday was unanimous 3-0 to divide the executive session as described by Canady.

Canady took issue with a pair of other issues on the agenda, one being Branigan’s decision to award blue ribbons to a number of local individuals at the opening of the meeting.

“I want to first say that I have no issue with anybody that got this ribbon,” she said. “But I am not exactly sure who or how we got to hometown heroes ribbon status. I don’t know what the criteria is, the council knows nothing about this or how it was accomplished.”

Branigan offered to let Canady lead the effort to draw up criteria for the awards, to which Canady responded, “Probably before we did this we might should have developed it and brought it to the council. It’s like any resolution or presentation we put before the council.”

Late in the meeting, on the agenda item to consider reappointing Moseby Hamilton to the Parks Board, Canady again was at odds with Branigan.

The issue was that Branigan wanted to see Hamilton appointed to fill the seat left vacant with the departure of Mike Wilson, and Canady wanted to leave the situation as is, with Hamilton serving on an interim basis, while the Council determined new criteria for board members.

“I personally am not willing to make a motion to do anything different than what we’ve already talked about,” Canady said.

After Branigan made her argument for why he should be appointed, the back and forth began again before Canady said, “I make a motion that we take no action on this item.”

The argument continued but the issue died without a motion.

Why such tension?
While Lankford chose not to wade into the discussion of what the root of the current tensions and hostility among council members might be, he did not deny that the tension was visible during Monday’s meeting.

“These are people that have been living here a very long time,” he said. “Honestly, I really don’t know how to answer that. As far as a personality conflict I can’t really speak to that, and if it is a conflict it is between two individuals and that’s something they have to resolve.

“It can be healthy to have a debate,” he continued. “Some people may look at it as argumentative and that’s fair.”

When asked why there was so much tension between Branigan and herself and potentially other council members, Canady wrote, “I think the mayor needs to accept her role as the MAYOR and let the council and city administrator do their parts respectively.”

Branigan said Tuesday that the only solution to the tension on the council was a new council, referencing the change she hopes for with the May 1 election.

“I think we have reached an impasse and the only real workable solution is a new council,” she said. “Election Day is May 1.”

Public comments test
City Council candidate Chris Pezold was the first to take to the podium under the new public comments ordinance, immediately testing the implementation of the new rules.

“After reading our local paper and the latest accusations made by Gram (Lankford) about rumors of unethical behavior and him running on the same platform a few others on this council ran on two years ago I wanted to share an epiphany I had: this town has a rumor problem,” Pezold said.

He went on to explain why he believed the new rules for public comments and the lack of discussion of certain issues only made the rumor issues worse.

After two minutes, Pezold said he was yielding the remainder of his time for “a little back and forth with the council” and at that time Lankford responded, focusing on arguing that the new rules were about accountability. Within the next minute the exchange became a debate between Pezold and Lankford, leaving the rest of the Council and staff unsure of what to do next.

After four minutes, Canady spoke up to cut off the exchange.

“Mayor, we’ve had our three minutes and that’s what we agreed to have on both.”

Branigan asked both Lankford and Pezold if they were satisfied with the exchange and Pezold took his seat.

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