Rift widens in city council

WARREN – A delayed Christmas gift has revealed a deep rift between the city council president and other council members.

During a special council-as-a-whole meeting Tuesday, several council members angered by a television news report that centered on a Christmas gift given to the council clerk on Jan. 9 revealed they were frustrated with treatment they received from council President Bob Dean over the last year.

While the meeting ostensibly was called to discuss what Councilwoman Helen Rucker, D-at large, perceived as an attack against her handling the money she collected for a gift given to council Clerk Brenda Smith on Jan. 9, it dissolved into questions on how Dean has operated during his tenure in office.

Rucker said this was the tip of a long-brewing list of grievances.

She questioned why Dean didn’t just talk to her.

She asked why Dean did not come to council when he decided, at the law department’s urging, the council would no longer do resolutions for citizens and organizations.

“That is a decision that is supposed to be made by council,” Rucker said. “If the law department has a problem that cannot be worked out, you’re a representative of the council and you are supposed to come to see what we want to do.”

“Resolutions are no small thing,” Rucker said. “They are important to us. They are important to our residents.”

Rucker said some issues among council members could have been resolved if the president had called more mandatory council-as-a-whole meetings.

“Last year, discussions about the bond issue could have been shorter if council-as-a-whole meetings were held so we could have expressed our concerns and you could have relayed them to the administration,” she said.

Councilman James Valesky said council has become dysfunctional and that must be addressed.

“For whatever reason, we have lost a decorum,” Valesky said. Decorum and continuity is secured from someone who holds your (Dean’s) position.”

Councilwoman Cheryl Saffold, who said she once viewed Dean as a father figure, questioned why he tried to get her thrown off council because of what she described as “minor traffic violations.”

“What I heard was it was because I gave away some smoke detectors,” she said.

Councilman Eddie Colbert suggested the council members had among themselves discussed ways to address their problems with the council president, ranging from stripping him of the authority, censure and a simple vote of no confidence.

“The reason we don’t want to do that is the respect for the seat,” he said. “This needs to be over.”

Dean said he has never shown any council member disrespect during his tenure, either on the council floor or during the council caucuses.

“I’ve always addressed them as Mr. or Mrs. or by their council position,” he said. “I’ve treated council members with fairness and honesty.”

Dean said he was not aware of any meetings among council members in which they talked about censuring him. He questioned when and where these meetings took place.

“I think the opportunists turned it (the meeting) around,” Dean said. ” It’s kind of like if you open the door, then I can say something I really wanted to say for 10 years. But the idea here is you have to be transparent.”

Talk of transparency was where the issues came to a head.

In a Jan. 21 news report, Councilman Alford Novak and Dean said there should be more transparency when it comes to council members collecting money for charity and for gifts for employees.

Novak said blogs he’s read and residents he’s talked to expressed concerns that money collected by council members was not getting to intended recipients.

It was that message that he was trying to get out, he said. “I accused no one of anything,” Novak said.

Other council members said that because no specific member was named, it made them all look guilty of wrongdoing.

“I was embarrassed,” Saffold said. “I was embarrassed that a story was out that council misappropriated funds for a Christmas present.”

“When you did not accuse any one person, we all become thieves,” Colbert said.

Novak said that was never his intention.

“My suggestion is whenever council members collect funds, they keep strict records, so if there are questions from the public the amount collected, from whom it was collected and how it was distributed can be documented,” he said.

Explaining what happened with the Christmas gift, Rucker said that during the first council meeting in December, she asked each council member for a $10 contribution. At the time, she collected about $30. A few days later, she came down with the flu and remained in the house over the next week or so recovering.

Rucker decided to give a $100 gift card to Smith during the first meeting in January.

“I did not collect from all council members, so really I’m being accused misappropriating my own money,” she said.