DeKALB – Although future city clerks will remain on the ballot, indecision by the City Council after continued public outcry by citizens led the council Monday to unanimously vote to table any further action on city clerk matters until September.
Sixth Ward Alderman Mike Verbic suggested that the council should conduct a workshop to better assess where the future of the elected office lies after council members heard from residents, including longtime former City Clerk Peggy Hoyt. The workshop is scheduled for the Committee of the Whole meeting Sept. 9.
“So perhaps a workshop to sort through these things versus what I have a feeling here amounts to peeing in the wind,” Verbic said. “We should sit down and sort out what those best practices are, including what is the [full-time equivalent] of the city clerk’s office.”
Verbic’s comments come on the heels of weeks of public debate amid a growing rift between the city manager’s office, the city clerk’s office and city staff who say City Clerk Lynn Fazekas has been “impeding” city business by keeping the city seal, used to approve documents, locked away so Deputy Clerk Ruth Scott, who also is the executive assistant to the city manager, can’t use it.
The rift spurred City Manager Bill Nicklas to propose changes to the office in early August, which would have involved making the role appointed instead of elected and redefining some duties of the office.
After a meeting Wednesday with DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato and Mayor Jerry Smith, Nicklas said he changed his mind on pushing for the clerk to be appointed.
The changed ordinances would leave the position an elected one, ensure that the deputy clerk has her own seal and allow any person who serves as the deputy clerk to remain a city employee under the supervision of the city manager.
“Some of the stories out there have served to defend a point, but not necessarily the facts,” Nicklas said. “In our conversation with the state’s attorney, he said it was not in the interest of his office how the council, which is sovereign in these matters, defines those duties [of the clerk’s office].
After the Aug. 12 meeting, Amato weighed in, saying that residents have twice voted in referendums to leave the position an elected one.
“My biggest concern was that the city follow the will of the voters and not deprive voters of an elected position,” Amato said when reached for comment after Monday’s meeting.
In addition to DeKalb County Board member Craig Roman and several residents, Hoyt – who said she served five terms as city clerk beginning in 1977 – spoke Monday in support of Fazekas.
“I have a place in my heart for the city clerk,” Hoyt said. “I’m wondering if it’s possible to turn back the clock, in a manner of speaking, and start again with the city clerk elected by the people, for the people, and a city clerk appointing her deputy who has her back. And not have to answer to the mayor, the council or the city manager.”
The proposals were up for a second reading vote Monday after passing, 5-3, on Aug. 12, (with 1st Ward Alderman Carolyn Morris, 2nd Ward Alderman Bill Finucane and 5th Ward Alderman Scott McAdams voting against). Attempts to waive the second reading Aug. 12 failed on both ordinances, despite the same
5-3 vote, because waiving the second reading requires supermajority approval from six of eight aldermen, according to the city’s code.
After attempting, and failing, to again persuade the council at the start of Monday’s meeting to consider the proposed clerk ordinances on first reading instead of second reading because of what 1st Ward Alderman Carolyn Morris said was “ a substantially different” set of proposed ordinances, Morris now is tasked with finding a compromise.
“We have people coming out who we’ve never seen before,” Morris told Nicklas. “I understand we frequently hear from the same people. Perhaps you discount their input because you’ve heard it over and over again.”
Mayor Jerry Smith delegated the task to Morris, who said she “would be happy to lead us in the right direction.” Smith said that, with reflection, he realized his Aug. 12 decision to support making the clerk appointed perhaps was not the right one.
“While this city could certainly be joining a host of other municipalities in making this change, it was clear that we had not adequately listened to citizenry who had voted by referendum that the DeKalb city clerk should be an elected position,” Smith said. “And after meeting with Amato, it was very clear that passing the ordinance would put us on thin ice.”