Town still seeking solicitor
Jesse Truitt resigned from the Frankford Town Council this week, following a discussion regarding hiring a new town solicitor and issues of conflict-of-interest that involved both the hiring of the solicitor and Truitt’s presence on the council.
During the Aug. 3 meeting, Council President Joanne Bacon requested that the other council members explain an agenda item calling for the reorganization of the council.
“When we interviewed the candidates for town solicitor, one candidate is your employer [Tim Willard, of Fuqua, Yori & Willard, P.A.], the other candidate was a Mr. [Richard] Goll,” Councilwoman Velicia Melson noted to Bacon.
“It was very evident that your employer had a great deal of inside knowledge that Mr. Goll did not. There’s some discussion within town council members as to whether that presents a conflict-of-interest for the town and how that representation would be on a forward basis.”
Melson said she believed Willard was the better of the two candidates, given his experience.
“We’re going to get more bang for our buck with him. I think there’s less of a learning curve. He has a great deal of knowledge with the senate and the workings of municipalities… But I do have some concern about the conflict-of-interest.”
“I have a few questions, because I was not invited back to that meeting to discuss those issues and questions you had,” said Bacon, referencing the fact that she had left the special council meeting during which Willard was interviewed. “Can council explain to me what the conflict would be?”
“How are you going to represent the Town, you working there?” responded Councilman Jesse Truitt.
“Where would the conflict exist if he represents the town of which I am a sitting council member?” asked Bacon again. “I just want to know where the conflict would be. Other than the fact that I divulged that information… Because I received a phone call that I was asked to step down as president and take over [as] secretary/treasurer. Is that correct?”
“That’s correct. But you’re looking at me like I’m the only one saying it,” said Truitt.
Bacon said she was asking the question of all her fellow council members.
“Where, again, is the conflict of me sitting in this chair instead of this chair? That’s my only question. I would still be a member of the council.”
Melson suggested someone else on council serve as the liaison between the town solicitor and town council.
“Because I think there are going to be conversations, just as there have been in the past, between the two of you pertaining to the Town that the rest of the town council is not privy to, and I do have a concern about that, because we are a unified town council… I think the information needs to be gathered as a team.”
“I agree wholeheartedly…” said Bacon.
“I made the suggestion that anything that had to go to the lawyer could be handed down to someone else if there was such a conflict,” said Councilwoman Pam Davis.
“Again, I don’t understand what the conflict is,” said Bacon.
Property owner Kathy Murray asked if the council understood the legal definition of “conflict-of-interest.”
“I know there is a lot of work that needs to be done with the town attorney… but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to move this town forward, and I’m not sure we as a town council have acted in the best interest of the town thus far this year,” said Melson. “We need somebody who is going to drive it … and drive it forward.”
“Aren’t there more attorneys out there?” asked resident Greg Welch.
“There are. But these are the two attorneys that Joanne vetted and brought to us,” responded Melson.
Resident Marty Presley asked if communication with the town solicitor would be exclusively with the council president.
Bacon said that any council member is free to speak with the town solicitor.
“I can’t see any difference between Jesse and Terry,” said resident Dawn Beck of Truitt’s wife, Terry, who is employed as Frankford’s town administrator. “I mean — that’s a big difference compared to a lawyer…”
“I’ve never [favored] her for anything,” said Truitt of his wife.
“Jesse, you voted for the 2 percent gross receipt tax that directly affected her,” said property owner Robert Murray. “That directly affected her.”
“I was a rental property owner,” said Jesse Truitt.
After some back-and-forth that involved Truitt, he expressed his frustration.
“Then leave! Then you should resign and get out,” responded Kathy Murray.
“I’m not leaving until my term is up,” said Truitt.
Council members’ contact with solicitor discussed
Returning to the subject of the Town’s legal representation, Davis said that communication with the town solicitor wouldn’t have to go through Bacon.
“We can all call — it doesn’t have to go through Joanne,” she said. “In six months, we have three seats coming up.”
Resident Elizabeth Carpenter said she believed that, no matter who on council communicates with the town solicitor, the entire council should “be apprised of that conversation.”
“Pam — just to use you as an example — if you were to have an issue and need to talk to the attorney, that conversation that you had one-on-one should be documented and disbursed to all council members, because — to me, anyway — maybe there’s conflict of interest with you and the attorney that nobody knows about, just like people are saying there could be with Joanne,” said Carpenter.
“I think having communication across the board and involving everyone in all communication can get rid of perceived conflict of interest, no matter who the communication comes from,” Carpenter added.
She also stated that she believed if one council member emails the town solicitor, the other members of council should be carbon-copied on the email exchange.
“That’s what’s fair and right.”
When asked for his opinion, Councilman Charles Shelton said the council was simply trying to come up with a solution to address their concerns.
“We felt two people shouldn’t be working together if they were working for the Town in a situation like that. We felt something might slip out, and something else had slipped out before somewhere along the line, and we didn’t want that to happen again… We thought that it would be better to just reorganize the council.”
Bacon stated that the council knew she was employed by his firm prior to Willard’s interview.
“I think it’s almost unbelievable for this council to even imagine that Tim [Willard] still would not talk to you about an issue … regardless of what chair you sit in,” said Kathy Murray.
Bacon said Willard was aware that the council had concerns regarding a conflict of interest.
“[Willard] states there is no conflict based on the Delaware Code, based on our ordinance. However, he said since the council has expressed their concern about the appearance — it doesn’t have to be a conflict — he’s withdrawing his name as attorney for consideration.”
Truitt resigns over assertions of conflict-of-interest
“Can I make a suggestion? [Since] all of a sudden we have these new rules and regulations on nepotism, that we need to take a look at the elephant in the room,” said Presley.
“It’s the appearance. It doesn’t mean there’s any wrongdoing being done, but the appearance of conflict-of-interest — nepotism certainly is one,” stated Bacon.
“Just like Jesse and Terry. He says he’s not doing anything to help her, but it seems like he is, so what happens there now?” asked Beck.
“Exactly,” said Bacon.
“So which one of them steps down?” Beck asked.
“One of them should step down,” said Kathy Murray.
“You want me to resign?” said Jesse Truitt. “I’ll do it right now.”
“I think you should,” responded Kathy Murray.
“I’ll do it,” he said, standing from his seat, with some attendees applauding. “Tickled to death… I’m going tell the rest of you something — you need to pay your bills, because I’m going to come after you with a vengeance.”
“Did you just threaten us with a police officer in here?” asked Beck.
“You said you’re going to come after us,” said Robert Murray, as Truitt exited the meeting.
Following the meeting, Truitt clarified his statement, saying he was not threatening anyone, but urging the council to go after citizens who owe the Town money.
The council voted 4-0 to accept Truitt’s resignation. At the time of his resignation, Truitt had served the Town for more than 25 years, including on the council and as its president.
Following his resignation, the council decided reorganization would not occur, as Willard had withdrawn his name for consideration as town solicitor, negating further concerns about conflict-of-interest.
“You all lost a good person, because it made no difference what chair she sat in. So you’re all to fault for that…” said Kathy Murray.
According to the Frankford town charter, Section 10, in the event of a resignation, the council will fill a council seat vacancy for the remainder of the entire term.
“In the event of any such vacancy, a special meeting shall be called by the secretary, adhering to the notice requirements hereinbefore mentioned therefore, which special meeting held for the purpose of filling such vacancy shall be held within 45 days.”
Council discusses citizen comments at meetings
Later in the meeting, Bacon addressed the citizens and other taxpayers in attendance, to make a comment.
“It has come to my attention that sometimes these meetings are getting a little out of hand, a little loud,” she said.
“What I’m going to ask is that we have our meetings and we’re going to give the residents and taxpayers time to speak, but I want it to be at the time we have the citizens’ comments section, and if you keep it limited to three minutes, we would greatly appreciate it. Any questions or concerns you have that aren’t answered, please get a hold of one of the council members… I want to try to hold the meetings without a lot of interruption.”
Later that evening, Melson suggested the council alter future agendas, so citizens’ privilege would be at the beginning of the town council’s meetings, not at the end.
“If it’s only at the beginning, and we get to the point of unfinished business or new business, and we have a comment into some of the discussion… We’re now not allowed to speak at the end, have any input? I find that totally unfair and shutting the citizens out a very important time to share their viewpoints, if we don’t get to speak at the end,” said Kathy Murray.
“On new business, if you’ve already talked about it and we have a different perspective and it’s valid… I just think that’s a major flaw in the council.”
Melson said she believed having the comment period at the beginning of the meeting would give citizens the best opportunity to make their opinions heard by council, prior to any votes occurring.
“We’ve tried at the beginning of the meeting. We’ve tried at the end of the meeting. To me, the end of the meeting is not productive, because some of the votes have already taken place and you haven’t necessarily had an opportunity to voice your opinion.”
“Why not have a limited one at the beginning for old business and one at the end for new business?” suggested Presley.
Melson said that any items citizens wish to discuss before council that are not on the agenda have been placed on the agenda when requested.
Shelton said those citizens would be granted time beyond the three-minute time limit placed on citizens’ privilege; however, they would not have unlimited time.
Melson motioned that a citizen placed on the agenda for a specific subject be entitled to speak on that agenda item, in proper order, in a timely manner, and the council will take their comments under advisement. The council voted in agreement unanimously.
In the future, the citizen who wishes to be placed on the agenda will have their name next to the agenda item.
“Let’s assume that you guys are having a conversation about something that I did not request to be placed on the agenda,” said Robbie Murray, “but maybe I have some knowledge or I have an opinion of that, and you’re getting ready to take a vote. Are you saying, at that point there is no way for anyone from the town to give their opinion until the end, since we didn’t request that that be on the agenda?”
“Under Robert’s Rules, that would be accurate,” said Melson.
“What is the purpose of the citizens being here?” he asked. “To me, it would seem that I would want their input prior to taking a vote. I agree that, at some times, it seems to get out of hand, but if I’m sitting in your seat, I want to know how these people feel or how I feel, or I want to know if I’m getting ready to do something that’s potentially illegal.”
Kathy Murray said the council had stated they didn’t have human resource experience; but that it appeared counterintuitive to not seek their opinions when voting on items affecting the town.
“You’ve got some folks out here that do and understand HR law. I would think you would want us to say something.”
“I think it’s the job of the president to maintain control. And if it starts to get out of hand, as it has in the past, you go, ‘That’s enough. We’re going to move on past this.’ We’re spending too much time trying to shut people up, instead of embracing that conversation, and it becomes confrontational… To say you have to speak before the meeting — well, I have no idea what your opinions are before the meeting. So, therefore, I can’t even rebut anything...”
Welch also stated that the agenda is too vague to give the citizens a real opportunity to comment on agenda items.
“The way the agenda is written — ‘water tower.’ What are you going to say about the water tower? … For me to say something about it before you first telling us what it means or what you’re talking about — it really limits us to what you’re talking about… You might be talking about what color you’re going to paint it. It’s limited.”
“I want to listen to the residents and the taxpayers,” said Bacon. “And sometimes it gets out of hand. It does.”
Truitt said that, if the council were to look at other municipalities’ agendas, there is a clarification of intent.
“For example, ‘review and consider a possible vote to cover water-tower maintenance.’ I’m just giving an example,” she said, adding that the future town solicitor may be able to give the council better guidance.
“That would’ve been nice to have done prior to these meetings, with Velicia doing the agendas... some guidance on that,” said Bacon.
Davis said that, if the council is going to vote in an item, the public’s input needs to be given prior to a vote.
Warchol suggested the town investigate Robert’s Rules of Order further, as well as contact other municipalities.
“A little bit of research, and you might be able to make everyone happy.”
Davis said she would research and report back to the council.
Committee to look into town manager
During the meeting, Kathy Murray told the council she believes a town manager needs to be hired to help run the Town.
“After attending the council meetings for over a year, it’s apparent that this town needs to hire a town manager. The current council clearly lacks the knowledge that it takes to oversee budget planning. It’s evident by passing and approving consecutive flawed budgets.
“The impression given is that you do what you’re told without independent questioning or thinking. Several of you never ask questions relative to the Town’s day-to-day operations, budgets, et cetera. There’s no experience in managing employees. Again, the impression is you believe everything you hear and you just go along with it,” said Kathy Murray.
“I believe if you clearly understood the ramifications of what you are agreeing to, things in this town would be quite different. As a result, the five of you are responsible for the current problems in this town.”
She stated that the council should seriously consider hiring a town manager who has knowledge in areas including personnel administration, accounting, financial principles, audit principles, office management, contract negations, et cetera.
“This list could go on and on,” said Murray. “I don’t see any of you possess all those skills or even enough of those skills to effectively manage this Town. I would suggest a small committee be formed to develop a job description and assist in the interviewing process, since the impression the council has left is that there is little to no knowledge concerning these responsibilities, and therefore need assistance in the interviewing… I would suggest you do not wait to proceed with this.”
Murray said the position could be paid for if the Town were to expand gross receipt taxation to include all businesses.
“A salary could easily be paid for with this new fee,” she said.
Melson and Bacon both agreed with Murray that a town manager is something the Town should look into and stated they would serve on a committee to explore a town manager position. Skip Ash, Marty Presley and Murray said they, too, would serve on the committee. Its first meeting will be Aug. 11, at 7 p.m. at the Frankford fire hall.
Citizens discusses audit/budget
Bacon stated that the budget, which was approved on July 13, would need to be amended to correct the operating budget’s transfer area, which had $29,210 being transferred out from both the General Fund budget expenditures and Water budget expenditures.
“You were right,” said Bacon to Welch, who had voiced his concerns about the operating transfer section at prior meetings regarding the 2016 budget.
“There are issues with the budget that do need to be amended,” she later stated.
Melson and Bacon said they would be meeting with one of the Town’s auditors, from Jefferson, Urian, Doane & Sterner P.A. (JUDS) to discuss the issue and how to correct it.
During her town administrator’s report, Truitt said accountants from JUDS would be in town hall for the next two weeks, conducting a field audit.
Murray stated she would “debate this whole issue of an audit.”
“The cover letter of each preparation/financial statement that is prepared by the accountant clearly states that they do not conduct an audit and they do not validate internal controls,” she said. “By that statement, to say they’re coming in for a field audit is a misrepresentation. I’m not sure what they do, but I also have audit experience, and by reading that cover letter and them stating that, they are legally protecting themselves, stating they have not conducted an audit.
“I don’t know what they’re doing for the next two weeks. I don’t know, but I can guarantee you it is not an audit in the [usual] sense of an audit. Yet, repeatedly, the verbiage ‘audit’ is used. It is reported in the minutes, giving representation that the Town has conducted an audit, and this Town has not undergone an audit, because they have legally protected themselves by that cover statement.”
Melson said the council had looked into an external forensic audit, but was quoted a cost of $400 to $500 per hour for the work.
“I’m not sure who did the research on auditing, on a true auditor coming in, but I can assure you — I don’t know who quoted $400 an hour, but I know auditors, I know audit teams, I know financial audit organizations, and the ones I know do not charge $400 an hour. I’m not sure who quoted who $400 an hour… I don’t think they wanted the job. I think they quoted that figure to scare you off…” said Murray.
“I would be willing to work with anyone to get them names of auditors and audit groups that understand financials, understand QuickBooks and understand internal controls… It’s not just the software that’s being used. It’s more about knowing what to look for. How to come in, look at procedures, look at internal controls and to look at things over a period of time — look at practices.”
Later, Murray asked the council how many hours a week the town’s police officers work at the water plant.
“Why is 25 percent of the police chief and 25 percent of the police officer hours and salary charged back to the water plant? … Twenty hours a week, their hours are charged back to the water plant,” she said. “If they do not do anything in support of the water plant, zero hours should be charged back to them. When you have two full-time officers, that’s 80 hours a month charged to the water plant.”
Murray said 64 hours per week worked by town employees is coming out of the revenue collected from the water plant.
“Those chargeback hours increase the cost of water per gallon. The water plant is supposed to be self-sufficient. This is part of the reason why Frankford’s water price per gallon is higher than surrounding areas.”
In June, the council held a workshop at which a draft employee handbook created by Bacon was given to the council members.
At that meeting, Welch asked if citizens could review the draft handbook, as well.
“Not at the present time,” Bacon had said at the June 15 workshop.
“I think at this point it’s too early,” said Melson.
Since June, the council has not held a workshop regarding the handbook; however, Bacon recommended forming a committee with residents and taxpayers who have experience with human resources “that could give us some guidance.”
A committee was formed, led by Davis, with Kathy Murray and Robbie Murray volunteering to serve. The committee will meet on Aug. 24 at 7 p.m. in the fire hall.
In other Town news:
• Following an executive session, the council voted unanimously to extend an offer to a candidate who applied for the vacant police officer position. They instructed Frankford Police Chief Michael Warchol to extend the offer, noting that the candidate would not be offered a take-home vehicle.
• As the Town is without an attorney, following the March resignation of former solicitor Dennis Schrader, the council said they do not wish to pursue taking action on the issue of water tower maintenance until the Town has secured new legal counsel.
“Some things are going to have to remain as they are for the time being, until we get an attorney to be able to review binding legal contracts.”
Melson offered to contact Schrader to see if he would be willing to review the contracts for the Town.
“It doesn’t hurt,” said Melson, stating she would call him that week.
• The Town plans to hold a Fall Festival on Oct. 31 and is seeking residents who are interested in volunteering their time to help plan and execute the event.
• A park/tree lighting ceremony will be held Nov. 28 to kick off Christmas in the Park, which will be held on Wednesdays through the month of December and give area kids the chance to meet Santa before Christmas Eve.