- Your Town
Double, double, toil and more trouble
Dillon City Council controversies multiply over single agenda item
Dillon’s City Council last Thursday proved it could meet in the middle of the day with only a single item on its agenda but still pack City Hall’s public seating area and escalate the intense controversy its actions and inactions have generated over the past month.
At a special Dillon City Council meeting convened at 12:30 p.m. last Thursday, the Council voted 6-1 to approve the only item on the meeting’s agenda: a resolution to hire Duke Gilbert to continue representing the city on four legal cases he was working on before getting dismissed as city attorney by Mayor Mike Klakken on Feb. 5.
But just about everything listed in that previous paragraph became a matter of further dispute during the meeting, which was marked by testy exchanges between members of the public and the Council, and new charges of legal wrongdoing, conspiracy and corruption.
The seven City Council members who voted to rehire Gilbert got questioned by members of the public in attendance over the circumstances surrounding their signing and sending of a letter the day after Gilbert was fired to the judges in two of those cases, urging that the cases continue to move forward.
Signed by Councilpersons David Spehar, Lynn Westad, Swede Troedsson, Derek Gore, Dick Achter, Bill Shafer and Bob Cottom, the Feb. 6 letter asked the judges presiding over the Brenneke and Warner cases to ignore what the seven perceived as efforts by Mayor Klakken to derail the cases because he lacked the authority to do so.
But the letter has some Dillon citizens wondering if those seven City Council members exceeded their own authority and held a secret, illegal meeting to draft and discuss the letter.
“You have stated,” local attorney Brenda Womack told the Council during the discussion period of the lone agenda item, “that the letter that seven of you have signed was not discussed and there was not a meeting. Would each one of you like to answer how you signed the letter?”
“I think we are getting off the subject,” interjected Spehar, the council president, “this is a one-subject thing; we cannot vary it into other areas.”
“This letter pertains directly to this subject,” replied Womack.
“It’s not appropriate for a member of the public to poll the Council,” insisted Troeddson. “It’s appropriate for you to make a statement, and that’s it.”
“Well, my statement will be: I do not believe as intelligent people, that you would sign a letter to a judge without discussing it or having a meeting,” responded Womack. “And I would like to know when you did that.”
At that point—which came about a half hour into the meeting—Spehar called for an end to the discussion and a vote on the resolution to hire Gilbert to finish the four cases.
Those cases include: Ed Jones v. City of Dillon, a wrongful dismissal suit brought by a former Dillon police officer for which current City Attorney Jim Dolan cannot represent the city because he testified in the case last year when he was still deputy city attorney; the Johnson Real Estate Purchase Contract, which entails the city’s efforts to buy a parcel of land offered for sale last year by the estate of Frances Johnson; and City of Dillon v. George Warner and City of Dillon v. Martin Brenneke—two cases involving the disputed installation of new water meters on private properties in the city.
The resolution passed, 6-1, with Spehar, Troedsson, Westad, Gore, Cottom and Shafer voting “aye” and only Dan Nye voting against it. Councilperson Dick Achter was not present at the meeting to cast a vote.
Though the meeting was officially adjourned by Mayor Mike Klakken shortly after the vote, people in the public seating area insisted that the meeting be reopened to allow for a public comment period.
Womack used that public comment period to again express her concerns about the Feb. 6 letter signed by the seven councilpersons.
“Is there anybody here of the seven Council members who signed the letter who can tell me that they did not sign the letter without discussing it?” asked Womack.
“Whether it was over the phone or over the Internet or face to face. I’m not saying that you got together in a meeting like this. But I cannot believe that you seven have signed a letter and did not discuss it and did not know what you were signing,” continued Womack.
“For the record, I was the one who took the letter around to the individual Council people,” said Spehar, who was re-elected as City Council president at the Council’s Jan. 15 meeting.
“I gave the letter to them with the information and they read it and they made their own choice. It in no way sets a policy; it in no way has an action or anything else,” added Spehar, in an effort to dismiss the notion that the drafting and signing of the letter involved an illegal meeting.
“I believe that action...” started Womack, in response.
“No, you’re wrong,” insisted Spehar.
“...does not have to be in a meeting like this to constitute a meeting,” continued Womack.
“No decisions were made, no streets were closed, no money was spent,” said Troedsson, attempting to back up Spehar.
“Obviously, a decision was made because you signed a letter and sent it to a judge,” retorted Womack.
“So why don’t you sue us, Brenda?” asked City Councilperson Bob Cottom.
“I may have to,” responded Womack. “I believe you violated an open meeting law.”
The Council has recently violated more than open meeting laws, according to a statement read by former Dillon Mayor George Warner during discussion on the resolution.
The defendant in one of the cases Gilbert was rehired to continue working on, Warner asserted that the City Council had violated a number of city ordinances with that day’s resolution to hire Gilbert. He also claimed that Gilbert had waited too long to ask the court to order Warner and Brenneke to reimburse the city for the legal fees that Gilbert charged the city for pursuing the cases against them.
The size of those legal fees became another subject of debate at last Thursday’s meeting, which opened with Mayor Mike Klakken explaining that he had confronted Gilbert about the amount of money he had charged the city on the cases after judgments had been passed down on the cases late last year.
Klakken said that after becoming mayor on Jan. 6, he came across documents that revealed Gilbert had in the last two and a half months charged the city $28,500, much of it for work on the Brenneke and Warner cases since the city had won judgments in both cases.
“The judgments in both the cases came out, and the city asked for attorney fees, but both the cases had orders,” said Klakken, who fired Gilbert for insubordination shortly after coming across the charges.
“And I saw a big charge going on, and I found out that what was going on was the past administration and its attorney was trying for attorney fees. I said, instead of charging the city more money, just stop that and go collect the money that is due,” added Klakken, who said he’d be excusing himself from further involvement in the Brenneke and Warner cases, due to conflict of interest questions arising from his longtime friendship with the two men and his performing some paperwork for them on their legal cases long before he became mayor.
Klakken said his discussions with people in the legal field led him to believe the city’s chances of recouping Gilbert’s fees for his work on the cases represented a big gamble, particularly with those fees having about doubled with Gilbert’s recent work in pursuing them.
Nye said he shared Klakken’s concerns.
“My thoughts are: is it really worth the cost of the lawyer to go after these charges?” asked Nye.
“I‘ve talked to another judge who said about the same thing [the mayor] did. A lot of times the judge will go against collecting costs, and if he or she does reward those monies or fees,” continued Nye, “the second part of it is getting it collected.
“So that’s what I’m wondering: is it really worth the extra attorney fees to go after this?”
Councilperson Bill Shafer said the city was obligated to go after the money.
“The city of Dillon is a corporation,” began Shafer. “The public are the shareholders of this corporation. If we don’t go after it, we’re not protecting our shareholders. I don’t know the money amount, but it is rather significant after four and a half years and I think that as a business person I would not let any settlement go that I’m going to lose money on for my corporation or my business. I don’t think it’s right. I feel we should go after costs.”
Troedsson said the costs the city had incurred on the Warner and Brenneke cases had risen to over $39,000.
“It is my understanding that probably 97 percent of those costs have already been paid,” said Spehar. “It’s just a matter of collecting. The money has already been expended.”
Warner claimed the Council’s resolution on rehiring Gilbert was legally invalid due to conflicting language on the agenda and because the resolution was in violation of a number of city ordinances. He also claimed Gilbert had acted too late in initiating his efforts to collect costs from him and Brenneke.
“The city did not make application for fees and/or costs in either case in the statutorily defined period of time,” asserted Warner.
“There is a process of law, and this is for the attorneys to follow the process of law,” said Westad. “I can’t speak for every step the attorneys have taken, but they have done it in the order they were supposed to.”
But Warner insisted that a number of city ordinances had been ignored and violated in the process. He claimed Gilbert had drafted the resolution calling for his own rehiring for the four cases and had not been legally authorized to do so.
Near the end of the meeting, Warner asked who had written the Feb. 6 letter that the seven Council members signed and sent to the judges.
“I had Mr. Gilbert draft it,” answered Spehar, “under my cost.”
Through loud, disbelieving laughter from many members of the audience following his response, Spehar then called for the meeting to adjourn.
But even as the City Council members began to collect their papers and leave the room, members of the audience continued to offer informal public comment on the day’s proceedings.
“Unbelievable!” shouted one woman.
“This is corrupt,” concluded Dillon resident Edith Fletcher, “totally corrupt.”