Questions about Mt. Sterling-West Jeff contract

(Posted April 15, 2020)

By Andrew Garrett, Staff Writer

Mount Sterling village council continued to take steps toward minimizing the spread of COVID-19, conducting their April 13 meeting via teleconference. While practicing social distancing may have kept council members safe, it did not keep them from becoming heated as they argued over the one piece of legislation to appear on the agenda.

The dispute centered around an emergency resolution authorizing Mount Sterling Mayor Marci Darlington to execute an addendum to the 2020 services agreement with the village of West Jefferson. Under the initial agreement, West Jefferson will provide inspection services for building, planning, and zoning permits at no cost to Mount Sterling.

The addendum calls for West Jefferson to also provide village administrative or management duties for Mount Sterling at a cost of $25,000 per year.

West Jefferson’s building, zoning and planning director would oversee both areas.

Becky Martin, council president pro tem, took issue with the proposal for several reasons, one being concern over its legality. According to Martin, the position of village administrator is a job that should have defined parameters and expectations. It should be posted and applicants should be interviewed, a process that had already happened some months ago, she said. With the resolution being pushed as an emergency, she said she did not have enough time to speak with Stephen Smith of Frost Brown Todd LLC, the agency providing Mount Sterling with legal counsel, for clarity on the matter.

Martin also wondered if one person would have enough time to complete all of the assigned duties, especially if his loyalty lies with West Jefferson. She also wanted to know why there was a sudden switch, when last she understood, council had practically agreed upon the hire of a particular individual for the village administrator position–at least to the point of giving the person a second interview and asking him about his insurance needs.

Darlington and council member Andrew Drake said they found the new arrangement to be legal after discussing it with the appropriate people. They said it wasn’t hiring for a job per se, but contracting for services, and therefore didn’t require following the same requirements.

Martin was not satisfied with Drake’s answer, saying: “I don’t know who ‘we’ is, but it didn’t include me… I know you are an attorney, but I still would prefer to speak with the village solicitor and get his input.”

It was made known that the service agreement didn’t mean just the hiring of a single person, it meant contracting for services for a whole department that was already up and running. Contracting with West Jefferson would also save Mount Sterling at least $35,000 a year, as the new contract charged the village $25,000. Hiring a village administrator would cost at least $60,000 per year.

Council members agreed to table the resolution until their April 27 meeting.

In other business, Martin presented a motion intended to amend village code regarding the raising of livestock, specifically chickens, within village corporation limits.

Martin advocated for making an exception to the regulations that forbid such practice after receiving a letter via e-mail from resident Amanda Gilliam. According to Martin, Gilliam made a good case for raising chickens for their eggs as a way to uphold social distancing practices by preventing unnecessary trips to a store. It would also give Gilliam’s children, who are involved in 4-H, some responsibility and something purposeful to do while sheltering in place.

Other council members were not keen on the idea.

“If we do this for one person, we’ll have to do it for everybody. Remember that problem with that pig that time? How long before it will lead to goats or lambs?” asked council member David Timmons.

According to council member Jay Pettey, this was a repeat request from Gilliam, this time piggybacking off of local government’s extended good will in dealing with an international health crisis.

Martin’s motion did not receive a second.

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