Pelham debates approach to filling council seat vacancy

Published 2:05 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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By DONALD MOTTERN | Staff Writer 

PELHAM – The Pelham City Council set the stage to approve Amy Milling to the Pelham Library Board and took part in a lengthy discussion surrounding the filling of the vacant council seat left by the resignation of Councilwoman Mildred Lanier-Reed during a regularly scheduled work session on Monday, Feb. 19.

The evening began with an expedient and unanimous approval of Amy Milling to fill the vacant seat on the Pelham Library Board. Milling was one of three candidates interviewed for the position, with community members Michael Papp and Rhonda Wilson having also sat for interviews with the council. Those interviews, which were all administered on Feb. 5, consisted of each candidate answering the same list of questions and saw them each graded and ranked independently by each councilmember.

Following the quality of all three interviews, of which the Council credited for their quality, the idea was proposed to raise the number of board seats to allow all three to be chosen. However, due to legal restrictions, such a maneuver was determined not to be a possibility and therefore the Council was made to decide on only one of the candidates based on the interviews.

“We only had one vacancy (to fill),” Council President Maurice Mercer said. “We did reach out and verify the state law and the statute to see if our five-member board could be expanded to seven members, but it cannot. Left with the one vacancy that we had, I would encourage the other candidates to participate with the library in another capacity if they are available.”

Following Councilman Rick Wash’s motion to accept Amy Milling as the appointee to the Pelham Library Board, and Councilman David Coram’s second to the motion, Milling was accepted with a unanimous approval that was later made official during the council meeting via a resolution.

The next matter tackled during the work session, and the topic that largely consumed the evening, was that of the process surrounding the appointment of a new city councilmember to fill the vacancy left by Lanier-Reed’s resignation.

Interviews for that appointment took place during a special work session on Feb. 13, where the Pelham City Council had the opportunity to interview all eight candidates who applied for the vacancy. Each of those candidates also sat for an interview process that utilized a scoring and ranking system closely resembling the one used to interview candidates for the library board.

Of the eight candidates who applied and sat for interviews, Michael Harris was declared to have been the frontrunner in the initial interview process, with Rhett Barnett and Tomeka Wilson effectively tied for second in the ranking and score system and Angie Simonetti placing just behind them.

However, due to several variances in the interview process, the number of candidates interviewed and the overall high quality of a number of the candidates, Mercer felt strongly in the notion that an additional round of interviews needed to be held for at least a number of the top candidates.

Coram fell alongside Mercer on this issue and wished to hold additional interviews with candidates in order to perform the due diligence he felt was warranted considering the weight of the position. He went on to credit a number of the candidates, including Michael Harris specifically, for the quality of their interviews. Coram also cited the existing precedent of the city holding second stage interviews in the past to support his and Mercer’s position.

However, Councilmembers Chad Leverett and Wash disagreed and felt that Harris was such a clear and definitive front runner during the interview process that no new interviews needed to be held and that Harris should also be approved at the current meeting.

“I think that the method that we used on these eight candidates was meticulous, well thought through and I think the questions we all had a say in—(as did the) the human relations part of the city—(were effective),” Wash said. “As we have done time and time again in the past, I think the rating system should stand on its own.”

Leverett agreed staunchly with Wash and cited his own experiences interviewing for the Council in addition to Harris’ front runner status as reasoning for his being against holding additional interviews.

“We put this grading system in place for a reason,” Leverett said. “Had it been another candidate (other than Harris in front) I would be supporting them. I didn’t think Michael (Harris), honestly, was going to come in here and be at the top of this list. I was floored at how well he was prepared for the interview and I could not have done better answering the questions—and I knew the questions.”

Leverett made his strong support and endorsement of Harris clear during his statements on the issue and, while not detracting from any other candidate, adamantly made his position clear that he believed Harris should be appointed without further delay.

“I think we should do the right thing and move forward in placing Michael (Harris) in the position that he won,” Leverett said.

With those positions, the council quickly fell into two clear camps that would hold steadfast throughout the entire session.

According to Mercer, one of the main causes of the stalemate were based in the fact that two of the eight candidates were not given grades by two of the councilmembers during the interview process. This alone led Mercer to feel that the scoring and ranking may have been altered and therefore constituted further discussion and potential interviews.

Additionally, Mercer cited differences in the interview process and how it was organized differently from usual as a potential reason that warranted another look at the candidates. Mercer also made specific mention of questions he personally felt needed to be answered pertaining to specific candidates before he could comfortably provide his own selection in the process. Namely, how Harris’ position as a business owner in Pelham, who has done business with the city, might affect his ability to vote and hold opinion on city matters and how Wilson’s position in education and academia might affect her availability. Mercer mentioned that it would not be the first time such a person in Harris’ position had held a Council position, but that he would like to hear Harris’ positions and answers on the matter.

“Hopefully the people represented here realize that it comes from a place of wanting to know where (we’re) at and always wanting to do right and to make sure that our processes are done well and are done forthright.” Mercer said. “I have some legitimate questions, at least for one of the two tied candidates, that I think would need to be answered before I would personally feel comfortable appointing either of them. In the past, we’ve always wanted to make sure each councilmember felt comfortable with the vote before we made such a vote. That is the rationale I have for this process.”

Despite those listed concerns, input from the city attorney on processes related to recusal and abstention and a short bout of strong discussion, neither side budged on the matter.

“This is not an easy decision,” Leverett said. “I want my fellow councilmembers to know that I believe in the civility pledge, that is why I read it—and I want the department heads and everyone to know that I just feel passionately about not re-interviewing—because I’ve been in that position, last year when I was the clear winner and there was some discussion of me not being appointed and it is just not fair. I’m not trying to be difficult or hard to work with here, I just feel passionate about this.”

In addressing the matter of the two candidates who had not received scores, both Wash and Leverett explained that it was related to those candidates failing to provide requested and necessary documents by deadline, namely a letter that was requested by the Council prior to the scheduled interviews.

“I was one of the ones who did not rank two people,” Leverett said. “I didn’t give them zeros, I actually marked them off of the list because we had a deadline of noon on Monday to turn in what we asked for—a 500 word or less write up. They did not comply, and so I didn’t feel obligated to rank them. Everything that we do is based off of deadlines. If there were some kind of reason that was justifiable, I could see myself considering that, but everything that we do is based off of time here and if they can’t submit on time then I don’t think that they deserve a spot on the City Council. That did not change how I graded everybody else.”

While both of those two candidates did send letters, both did so after the deadline. One sent one in after being reminded of the document and the other did so after a similar reminder and the passage into the next business day, which landed their submission on the day of their interview.

“I also didn’t rate the two candidates that did not meet the deadline,” Wash said. “I think it’s important when you’re asked to do something that you do it. We’re asked to do stuff all of the time and of all things, this is a very time sensitive matter. We’re working under a strict deadline in order to keep this decision in our hands. This request was made on a Friday morning with a deadline of Monday at lunch. Monday at lunch came and went with six of the eight candidates (complying).”

Wash likened his not to grade the two late submitters to that of an employer in the private sector not interviewing a candidate who arrived late to an interview. Like Leverett, he also insisted that doing so did not cause him to grade the other six candidates any differently than if he had graded all eight.

“If you can’t follow simple instructions and meet a timeline, with a grace period that was easily meetable and did not reach out to us (with an explanation), in my eyes that disqualified (them),” Wash said. “There is nothing on the guidelines that said I could not give someone a zero or refuse to rate them at all, that’s the nice thing about being the interviewer.”

Wash further described that the process is a difficult one but that given the weight of the position they are selecting, he felt the need to hold all candidates accountable to the timetable and viewed it as part of the selection process to select the best overall candidate.

“That’s the prerogative that I have for sitting on the City Council and it is no different than the prerogative these other three gentlemen have,” Wash said. “In defense of myself, I did what I thought was right. I did what I thought was fair to the other six candidates who met the timeline.

Pelham Mayor Gary Waters also did not lend support toward another round of interviews, citing that potential concerns over Harris’ business ownership were easily navigable, nothing new in terms of precedent and something to be commended. In doing so, Waters provided the example of Bob Sinclair, former member of Planning and Zoning, as a key example of someone who was able to work with the city in business and for the city through the correct usage of business ethics, recusals and abstentions.

Although some of the discussion grew to be spirited, and the stalemate was left unresolved, by the close of the work session all members were amicable, cooperative and agreeable with one another on notably every other topic of discussion covered.

“Us four guys, we love each other,” Wash said. “What we do up here is hard. It is a hard job to do and we are faced with super difficult situations and super difficult choices. It is important to know that it is okay for us to disagree as long as we do It agreeably and as long as we do it with a loving heart. In being a lifelong resident of the city of Pelham, I’ve never met three other people that are more passionate about Pelham than the men who sit up here with me.”

In echoes of Wash’s comments, both sides of the matter showed care and concern for how they felt it most appropriate to proceed. In words that sum up the position of each council member, they were all working toward the same goal and practicing the same prerogative but had mutually reached differing conclusions.

“There are five (council seats) for a reason, that way you get five different opinions, thought processes and backgrounds,” Wash said. “It doesn’t happen often, but there are times, like in this case, where we have trouble coming to a decision and we struggle for different reasons. We can have good healthy debate about something but all walk away from this as brothers.”

The next discussion of Lanier-Reed’s replacement on the Pelham City Council  is currently set to appear on the agenda of the next council work session and meeting which will take place within days of the deadline. There was no indication, at the time, of the possibility of a  special work session or further interview process.

Should the Council remain gridlocked, each council member will be made to submit their choice, along with Waters, in his position as mayor, to the governor’s office, upon which time she will have 30 days to review and appoint a candidate to the seat.