Thursday, April 09, 2009

Save Our Springfield (SOS) Citizen's Coalition Calls for City Manager Burris' Resignation

The headline in a "Springfield News-Leader" article, published in the Thursday, April 9 issue speaks volumes: "Police, fire support affects election wins."

But, what would you think if you knew that Springfield's City Manager Greg Burris had directly effected the Firefighter Union's choice of candidate endorsements? Would it give you pause to question whether the City Manager had inserted himself into a City Council election? Would you consider such actions, if true, to be unethical actions for a city manager? If so, you might be be in agreement with the positions of SOS spokesmen Darin Chappell and Mark Wright.

If, as the winning (and the losing) candidates seem to agree, police and firefighter union endorsements and support effect election wins, and the City Manager's actions contributed to the Firefighter Union's decision not to endorse General Seat A and B, City Council candidates Tom Martz and Fred Ellison, certainly, the losses of the firefighter union endorsement factored into their slim losses to their challengers. General Seat A candidate Robert Stephens beat opponent Tom Martz by about 500 votes. General Seat B candidate John Rush beat opponent Fred Ellison by a mere 208 votes, Chappell noted at a press conference early Thursday.

According to Firefighter Union President Tony Kelley, the receipt of an email forwarded to him by City Manager Greg Burris without sender Fred Ellison's permission, caused the Firefighter Union officials who decided which candidates the union would endorse, and which candidates they would not endorse for Springfield City Council, to suspect Martz and Ellison, "were lying to us to try to get our endorsement."

In the email Kelley referred to, General Seat A and General Seat B candidates Tom Martz and Fred Ellison were kicking around ideas which they thought might enhance voter support for a 1 percent sales tax initiative to fund the police and firefighters pension plan, Ellison said. Kelley understood the email to suggest the two candidates favored either reducing or cutting completely their return of contribution pension benefit.

Kelley called the Vincent David Jericho (VDJ) Program the day before the election and said, based on that email forwarded from Burris, the union chose not to endorse Martz and Ellison. At one point, Kelley asked Jericho, "Why would we endorse candidates that lied to us?"

On the VDJ Program Kelley explained:

"What had happened was, we received an email dated December 7th where Mr. Martz and Mr. Ellison were discussing back and forth about benefit reductions, basically, doing away with the return of contributions aspect of our pension plan," Kelley said. "Whenever we had a candidate forum, one of the questions was, do you support benefit reductions to police and firefighters, and their answer was no, they don't support it. We found that to be disturbing, that I have an email where both of them were exchanging back and forth about what would be a benefit reduction and, you know, two weeks later we have a forum and they both say, 'no, we're not in support of that,' so that played a lot into our decision to not endorse Martz and Ellison."

Ellison spoke to JackeHammer after the press conference in which SOS spokesmen Darin Chappell and Mark Wright called for Burris' resignation.

"My entire intent in forwarding the email to Mr. Burris was to suggest to him an additional basis for supporting or ensuring the success of the 1 percent sales tax initiative." Ellison said. "I felt like the return of contribution benefit is one of those that many citizens have expressed significant reservations about, and that had the police and firefighters been willing to accept some modification to that benefit that would have, as it were, played well with the voters of Springfield."

Martz and Ellison, members of the Missouri Liberty Coalition, had made several suggestions which were later included in a resolution the City Council passed with the intent to honor if the voters had approved the 1 percent pension sales tax initiative. That initiative failed in February.

Ellison said Kelley had not given him any indication, until the day before the City Council election on the Jericho Program, that he and the other Union officials who decided against endorsing him and Martz for City Council had suspected them of being dishonest with union members.

At issue for Chappell, co-SOS spokesman Mark Wright and KSGF radio talk show host Vincent David Jericho is not who won the election but, that by the forwarding of that email, City Manager Burris had injected himself into the City Council election. An action they view as unethical.

According to Chappell, whether a particular city manager is a member or not, the International City Manager Association's (ICMA) Code of Ethics is the national standard of ethics for city managers. Chappell cited Tenet 7 of the ICMA Code of Ethics:

"Refrain from all political activities which undermine public confidence in professional administrators. Refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body."

Chappell, who holds a degree in public administration and teaches public administration, public finance and budgeting at Drury University,* believes that by forwarding an email, unsolicited, to the President of the Firefighter Union, Burris affected the election, and such an action is unethical. He made clear he was not speaking in connection with the university, but as a member of the Save Our Springfield Citizen's Coalition.

Chappell said he spoke to Martha Perego, ICMA's director of ethics. "She was shocked that any City Manager would insert himself into a political campaign such as Mr. Burris has clearly done," Chappell said. According to Chappell, Perego said such behavior would cause an ethics investigation to be considered immediately, which might result in censure or even loss of membership in the ICMA, however, Chappell said, "Mr. Burris is not a member of the ICMA, to my knowledge."

In response to a question, Chappell said that while he had not identified the city or named Springfield's city manager specifically when speaking to Ms. Perego, he had informed the Director of Ethics that the email was an "FYI," and, he reported, "she asked if the City is in active negotiations with the Union concerning a renegotiation of benefits and I said no, not at all." Chappell said she said, "there is absolutely no reason that the City Manager should have been in contact with the Union officials about the positions or possible positions or thought processes of two candidates for City Council. There is no justification for it whatsoever, from an ethical perspective," he said.

Co-SOS spokesman Mark Wright said such action also violates Springfield's City Charter, Wright read from Section 6.11 of the Charter, which, in part, reads:

"No appointive salaried officer or employee of the city shall during the hours when he is on duty engage in any form of political activity calculated to favor or improve the chances of any political party or any person seeking or attempting to hold political office, nor shall he engage in any political activity when not on duty to such an extent that his efficiency during working hours will be impaired or that he will be tardy or absent from his work."

"Candidates that may have been assisted in their campaigns, and who were elected, may feel beholden to the City Manager and lose their effectiveness as public officials," Wright said. "Other Council members may feel intimidated by the action of the City Manager and feel less inclined to challenge him or her on positions that may not be in the best interest of the citizens they represent."

The forwarded email in question was generated by Burris at 7:48 a.m. on Monday, December 8. Burris forwarded it to Tony Kelley, Deputy City Manager Evelyn Honea, Assistant City Manager Collin Quigley, Assistant Fire Chief David Hall, and Mike Evans. While earlier portions of the email Ellison had blind carbon copied to Burris included several earlier exchanges, and as many as 12 email addresses, including the Missouri Liberty Coalition's google group address, the email in question was only sent by Mr. Ellison to three other email addresses. Those three recipients were Tom Martz; Carl and Linda Herd; and James Hornaday Jr.

Burris, Chappell said, had "warned" the 5 recipients to whom he forwarded the email with the note, "FYI, so that no one gets blind-sided by upcoming comments or suggestions by the Missouri Liberty Coalition."

Whether Burris intended it to have an effect on the City Council election or not, it is clear that it, in the words of Tony Kelley, "played a lot into our decision to not endorse Martz and Ellison," and as the News-Leader reported, "Police, fire support affects election wins," so, in essence, by effecting the Firefighter Union's choice of endorsement, whether intentional or not, Burris affected the City Council election.

Fred Ellison does not intend to challenge the election, "With regard to the election, the election is water under the bridge at this point so, there's nothing that's going to change the outcome of the election but, I certainly wish that this had not been a factor in the decision of the voters," Ellison said.

"I think it's very unfortunate that Mr. Burris has placed himself in this position and I really regret all of the negative sentiment that will result in the continuing damage to trust of the citizens of Springfield and their city and their city government," Ellison said. "That's the most dangerous thing that these actions have done, in that it's continued that atmosphere of mistrust the citizens feel toward the city government."

Beyond calling for the City Manager to resign or, if he refuses to resign, calling on the Council to fire Mr. Burris, Chappell and Wright have no plans to take other action but, Chappell believes a line must be drawn, "When the Director of Ethics at the ICMA (International City Manager Association) is shocked by this behavior, the City Council should be as well, the citizens should be as well," he said.

The City of Springfield issued a press release late Thursday afternoon with Burris' statement in response to the charges that he had acted unethically by forwarding the email exchange between the two City Council candidates to the Firefighter Union:

"It’s disappointing to me that this group is trying to shift the focus of the City Council election outcome to one single e-mail exchange from four months ago instead of urging the community to pull together to support the newly elected Council members. There is simply no basis for their allegations. Nor have they approached me directly with their concerns since a phone call from a Journal Broadcasting radio show host on Monday asking for my recollection of the e-mail, which I didn’t even remember from December.

The e-mail they are citing already had several Missouri Liberty Coalition members copied on it and there was no indication it was supposed to be considered confidential, especially considering it was sent to a public official and would be open under the Missouri Sunshine Law. I simply forwarded it to the appropriate staff members who were involved in the police-fire pension tax proposal as an FYI to let them know points that Coalition members may raise at presentations or elsewhere. I’ve worked very hard to establish trust and open lines of communication with all of our employees, including representatives of our employee groups.

I’m also disappointed because I have similarly tried to respect the mutual interest I share with the SOS group in solving our pension underfunding problem. I have stated repeatedly that their proposal would be forwarded to the Citizens’ Task Force for their review and consideration and I forwarded a whitepaper prepared about the Capital Improvements Program to Mr. Wright and Mr. Chappell for their background information as a courtesy." - Greg Burris, City Manager

General Seat A Candidate Tom Martz said the email exchange was part of an ongoing discussion the candidates had been having for months as they sought solutions to the underfunded pension plan. "What I said prior to that forum (December 18) has no bearing," Martz said. "I've been consistent."

Chappell pointed out that the candidates had never deviated from their position that they did not favor a reduction in return of contribution benefits after December 18, 2008.

It is unclear why the Firefighter Union did not question them for clarification on the issue.

*Correction: Darin Chappell is an instructor at Missouri State University. Yesterday, during the news conference Mark Wright stated Chappell was an instructor at Drury University, I regret the error. -Jackie


"April 10_Hour 2_Who is Vince calling out and why" (KSGF podcast)

"April 10_Hour 3_Free For All" (KSGF podcast)

"Save Our Springfield group calls for resignation Springfield News-Leader"

busplunge: Group Calls For Springfield City Manager Called To Resign: Allege Ethical Breach"



Anonymous said...

Also unclear is why Ellison not only copied Burris on this, but he blind copied him on to boot. Why include Burris at all and why make the conscious effort with a BCC to hide it from the others?

Jackie Melton said...

I can't say why Ellison blind carbon copied it rather than simply cc'ing it to the City Manager however, if you will refer back to this blog entry, Ellison's intent is noted in his own words. I asked the question, here was his answer as written in the entry:

""My entire intent in forwarding the email to Mr. Burris was to suggest to him an additional basis for supporting or ensuring the success of the 1 percent sales tax initiative." Ellison said. "I felt like the return of contribution benefit is one of those that many citizens have expressed significant reservations about, and that had the police and firefighters been willing to accept some modification to that benefit that would have, as it were, played well with the voters of Springfield.""

Anonymous said...

Perhaps then, as someone who preaches so much about transparency in government, Fred should have brought this suggestion to public dialog rather than burying it in a BCC to the City Manager. And just how was the CM going to pass this suggestion along without, in SOS's view, violating ethics? Seems that forwarding this to the union as a heads-up put the ball in the union's court to consider the suggestion or reject it.

Jackie Melton said...

I think, perhaps, you are missing the point that the email was out of context and a part of an ongoing discussion about the pension issue between Martz and Ellison.

Now, would Mr. Ellison have better served himself (and Martz) to have put the email in context for Mr. Burris rather than trusting Burris to understand his meaning? I think that's a fair question and I'd say Ellison probably learned a hard lesson from that process.

But the point is, it was an ongoing discussion, an evolving discussion. In the end, my understanding is that Ellison and Martz decided the modification they would more likely favor was to spread out the payment of the contribution returns over a period of 3 to 5 years rather than pay them out in one lump sum at retirement, not to suggest that the Tier 1 pension employees give up or reduce the contribution returns. That decision, apparently, was reached sometime between Dec. 7 (the date of the ongoing email discussion) and December 18 (the date of the Firefighter Union's candidate forum according to Martz).

To suggest ongoing discussions, in which parties consider all sorts of scenarios and then settle on a particular idea, causes the parties to be liars simply because they decided against one of their considerations in favor of another was not one of the Firefighter Union's best moments.

When the Pension Task Force discusses all options and decides to throw out various ideas as the discussion continues, will they be considered liars because they considered an idea and decided later that it was not a good idea or not an idea they would support?

While you're questioning things...I wonder if you question why Burris didn't include Fred Ellison in the forwarding of that "heads up," so that the Council candidate wouldn't later get "blind-sided" by accusations like, oh, I don't know, like being accused of lying for kicking around ideas and ruling some of them out at a later date?

Why didn't the Union seek clarification? Why wait until the day before the election and then "blind-side" Martz and Ellison?

But, all that considered, the key point is that the fact that Burris forwarded that (unsolicited) email to the president of the firefighter union without Mr. Ellison's knowledge or permission, it effected the endorsement decision of the Union and the endorsement decision of the Union had an effect on the election.

Burris effected the City Council election. I believe that is a clear conflict, since he serves at the pleasure of the City Council, and as such, deserves to be questioned from an ethical standpoint.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I'm missing the point at all. We'll agree to disagree, but nothing in the CM's email influenced the election, nor the endorsement of the union. You ask why the union did not seek clarification. A good question. That lack of action by the union influenced their own endorsement, not the CM's email. They, not the CM, brought the issue up the day before the election. When the CM forwarded the email, the sales tax initiative, not the council election, was the pressing topic of the day. In fact, we had not even gotten though the primary election. If the CM's email was that influential to skew the election against Tom and Fred, why wouldn't it have affected the primary as well? I may be remembering incorrectly, but I believe the union may have endorsed Lyle Foster in the primary.