Archive for Tuesday, July 13, 2010

City of Tonganoxie answering service survives council’s budget scrutiny

July 13, 2010

By Elvyn Jones

ejones@theworldco.info

A tight 2011 budget prompted Tonganoxie City Council members to confront the thorny issue of the city’s answering service, manned by Mayor Mike Vestal.

The issue was debated Monday when City Administrator Mike Yanez asked council members for suggestions of where to cut or add to the 2011 city budget.

Councilwoman Paula Crook identified the answering service with its $14,000 annual contract as a possible cut, saying that it was an outdated service.

Councilman Tom Putthoff had the same concerns.

“I love Mike,” he said. “I’ve known him all my life. But I think we’ve outgrown the service. As much as I hate to do it, I think it needs to go away.”

He is in awe of the service Vestal has provided for 35 years and his ability to tell emergency responders details such as the color of the houses, Councilman Burdel Welsh said. What concerned him was the potential for conflict of interest with the mayor being both the superior and employee of the police chief.

Welsh reminded the council that after a motion to reward the answering service contract in April to a business owned by James C. Conway was met with awkward silence, it was agreed the service would be discussed during budget deliberations.

“It’s a sensitive issue,” he said. “Nobody has discussed this openly. I would like to resolve this issue. Which way do we want to go?”

Resident Dennis Bixby challenged that concern. Vestal was elected with the knowledge he manned the answering service, and Welsh ran for council with the same knowledge, he said. Why, he wondered, was it an issue now?

And when Vestal — who had earlier said he would resign as mayor if the majority of the council viewed his dual positions as a conflict of interest — said he was not running for re-election in 2011, Bixby said it was an issue that would go away next spring.

Welsh eventually dropped his objections because of Vestal’s short time left as mayor and because of pending changes to the city’s charter, which would have the council appoint the police chief at the recommendation of the city administrator instead of the mayor. The charter ordinance, which is subject to a 60-day protest period that expires Aug. 15, would also make the police chief’s hiring permanent until the chief resigns or was fired instead of subject to the mayor’s annual renewal recommendation.

Police Chief Kenny Carpenter said he had occasionally forcefully disagreed with Vestal about his actions with the answering service with no repercussions. But he said removing the annual renewal recommendation would eliminate that concern.

Carpenter added Vestal had never told him how to run the police department as mayor or an employee of the answering service.

With Councilman Jim Truesdell and Jason Ward supporting the answering service — Ward also said he was more comfortable with the arrangement with the charter changes — Welsh backed funding the answering service.

“Budget-wise, I’m happy to keep it, as long as we keep taking steps to eliminate potential conflict,” Welsh said. “I think in six months, it will be resolved.”

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