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Granite Shoals debates hire/fire power

Granite Shoals City Secretary Dawn Wright

Granite Shoals City Secretary Dawn Wright listens as the City Council discusses the merits of changing the city’s charter regarding her position. Current rules give the council the power to hire and fire the city secretary, but a proposed amendment would give that ability to the city manager. Staff photo by Dakota Morrissiey

The Granite Shoals City Council asked the city attorney to reword a proposed change to the city’s charter to retain the council’s power to hire or fire the city secretary. The city’s Charter Review Committee recommended that ability be given solely to the city manager. It is one of several amendments the council hopes to put before voters on May 4, 2024. 

Officials have until Jan. 14 to finalize language on the ballot. 

“I’m happy with everything here except for one thing,” said Councilor Phil Ort, referring to the proposed changes to Articles 3 and 4 in the charter. “This would put the city secretary completely under the city manager, and I think that is a grave mistake. It’s (a part of the) checks-and-balances (system) that was put in the charter, and it should never be removed.”

He was referring to changes to Section 3.06 (4) and Section 4.02, which would take away the council’s ability to appoint and remove the city secretary and allow the city manager to do so without seeking council approval.

Ort said that, under the current rules, the city secretary can act without fear of retribution from the city manager, which allows for more open and honest communication. 

The potential changes were debated during the Granite Shoals council’s regular meeting on Nov. 28 and center on what some members say is important to the balance of power in the city.

The council is discussing several proposed changes to the city charter that could be sent to voters in May. The Charter Review Committee spent six months — September 2022 to March 2023 — going over the city’s governing document

Currently, the city manager is responsible for hiring and firing all city employees except the city secretary, municipal judges, and city attorney.

“We would not have known what our past city manager had done if he could have fired the former city secretary,” Ort said. “The former city manager was involved in a few things that the city would have been quite liable for. If he was able to fire her, she would not have felt comfortable coming to the council and saying what was really going on.”

Ort could not be reached for comment for this story regarding the city manager and city secretary to which he was referring, but the previous city manager, Jeff Looney, was fired in June 2022. Peggy Smith is the current city manager.

Charter Review Committee member Jeff Kahl explained the reason behind the change proposal.

“The city manager takes care of the operational procedures of the city and the city secretary is part of the operations of the city,” he said.

The city secretary is responsible for giving notice of public meetings and facilitating them, being the city’s official records keeper, scheduling and overseeing elections, fulfilling public information requests, and performing an extensive amount of clerical work on the city’s behalf. Current Granite Shoals City Secretary Dawn Wright is also the human resources director.

The city secretary is also a bridge between the city, council, and residents. Ort argued that the position should be under the purview of the council so the city manager does not have total control over the inflow and outflow of information regarding city business.

City Manager Smith gave her take on the subject at the request of Councilor Steve Hougen.

“I’ve seen this both ways,” she said. “I’ve seen it work well and not work at all.”

Smith explained that having an employee that the city manager could not hire and fire might cause morale problems among other staff members. It could also present difficulties due to the dual function of the role as HR director and city secretary, which are considerably different jobs.

Wright herself agreed with Smith’s assessment but said she appreciated the council’s involvement when she was hired.

City Attorney Josh Katz stepped in to clarify the situation and present options to the council.

“I’ve said this many times, but you had a Charter Review Committee and they did really hard work, they put in a lot of time,” he said. “You should be deferential to what they’re recommending they put on the ballot, but at the same time, you have the authority to add things, subtract things, or change things.”

Ultimately, Mayor Ron Munos and councilors Ort, Hougen, Michael Berg, and Judy Salvaggio asked Katz to rewrite that section to require the city manager make recommendations to the council for hiring or firing a city secretary, which the council would have to approve by majority vote. 

The council did not vote on the issue at the Nov. 28 meeting. It will be on a future agenda for final approval.

dakota@thepicayune.com