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Mayor’s ‘gag order’ questioned

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Royalty says he’s responsible for protecting employees

By Randy Patrick

City Attorney Tim Butler expects to have offers today from three or four lawyers to handle the City Council’s investigation of Mayor John Royalty’s administration regarding whether city resources were illegally used to try to sway the outcome of the Nov. 8 election.

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In the meantime, current and future council members are raising concerns about what some have called a “gag order” by the mayor barring council members from talking with city employees about city business.

Former Mayor Dick Heaton and former County Attorney John Kelley both used the term “gag order” to describe a memorandum Royalty sent to department heads Nov. 23. That was the day after Councilman Fred Hagan called for hiring an outside investigator to look into circumstances surrounding the discovery Nov. 1 of envelopes by the back door of the council chambers containing records on council members Kecia Copeland and Francis Lydian.

The records on Copeland included traffic tickets, small claims cases and fire run reports on two of her residences. There was also an old tax lien against Lydian that has been settled. The packets were left anonymously and distributed to city officials and reporters.

Butler said the attorney investigating the case would first determine what law or laws might have been broken. The council would then have to decide whether to pursue “a full-blown investigation, a cursory investigation or no investigation at all.”

Butler asked for the attorneys to also include their credentials, proposed hourly fees and an estimate of the amount of time it might involve. He said he would then turn that information over to Hagan to distribute because he thought he should step back from it, although he would be available to offer legal advice.

“I don’t want to take an active overseer’s role in this process. I don’t think that’s appropriate,” Butler said.

At the start of the meeting, Copeland had asked Butler whether the prohibition about not talking to city employees meant only not asking them questions related to the investigation or not asking them anything at all.

Butler said the same state law that empowers the council to investigate the administration also allows the mayor to require that any questions to any employee under his supervision be directed in writing to him, and that answers from department heads or employees first go to him for his review.

Later during the work session Tuesday afternoon, Hagan touched on the issue again, asking if he would be prohibited from asking the city’s finance director a question about the budget. Royalty replied that he would have to submit the question in writing to him.

“That’s going to make it impossible to do our jobs,” Hagan said.

Royalty responded that he did not want to “hamper the investigation.”

When Hagan asked how talking to Hudson about a budget question had anything to do with the investigation, Royalty said that, “One question leads to another …”

Asst. City Administrator Larry Green said he expected the ban to last only as long as the investigation. It’s an inconvenience, he admitted, and while “it would be nice” if there were reasonable exceptions, “we’re in an adversarial relationship because of the (council’s) investigation of the administration.”

Heaton, Kelley and former Mayor Bill Sheckles, who was also elected to the council, all attended the meeting.

Heaton asked if he could speak and ask questions — something not normally allowed of audience members. Heaton noted that he and the other newly elected members need to be able to ask questions during the transition to be better prepared when they take office.

“I don’t know if this gag order applies to city councilmen-to-be,” he said.

“I don’t think it would apply to you until you’re sworn in as a city council member,” Royalty said. But he added that the new council might take over the investigation. Sheckles asked the same question and got the same answer from the mayor.

Kelley, however, didn’t think the ban should apply to current members either.

“I don’t know how a council person can do their business if everything has to be filtered through the mayor,” he said.

Butler, although he agreed the mayor has the right to bar his employees from speaking to council members, also questioned the memo.

“You have to be careful, but I think that … what the mayor’s done is a little broad and it’s a little premature,” he said.

Butler said he hoped the investigator hired can weigh in on the question of what council members may discuss with department heads — and he added that only the managers, not their employees, should be questioned.

After the meeting, Royalty told the Standard he thought that the description of his memo as a gag order was “inappropriate.”

“What I’m doing is protecting the employees,” he said.

Royalty said several employees “have been approached” by a council member, but he would not say which one it was or what questions were asked.

“You can’t run a side investigation,” he said. “You will compromise the real investigation.”