Those of you that followed the Slabbed Twitter feed last night were treated to some fireworks as I live blogged the City Council meeting. Outgoing City Attorney / Harrison County resident Donald Rafferty had a bit of a meltdown over the residency requirement now in effect for the City Attorney position as he repeatedly clashed with the City Council on Mayor Fillingame’s behalf. I thought Mayor Fillingame and Mr. Rafferty stooped particularly low when the newly enacted SB2587 and its applicability to Bay St Louis’ perpetually interim Chief Building Official Charles Oliver was discussed when both accused the Council of conducting a personal vendetta against Oliver, who has never been able to pass the basic test to gain certification as a Municipal Building Official.
More interesting to me was Mr. Rafferty terming the new state law a “knee jerk reaction” while essentially advising the Council to ignore it for now. Mr. Rafferty and the Mayor couched the new law as ambiguous predicting the Attorney General will interpret it in such a way as to make it effectively meaningless. What is clear is the intent of the law is to stop Mayors in Mayor-Council forms of government from placing their unqualified political cronies in crucial positions such as Police Chief, Fire Chief, Chief Building Official on a perpetually interim basis and stems from an epic battle between Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree and the Hattiesburg City Council which Mayor Dupree lost.1
But as the Council went over how Oliver was hired into the position for which he is not qualified, replacing a highly qualified individual, there was an attempt to revise history by the Mayor, who steadfastly denied last night that he fired Oliver’s certificated predecessor so we need to start with Hizzoner’s favorite media outlet, WLOX and his main man Al Showers, who was MIA last night. As per normal Mayor Fillingame couched the maneuver in terms of cost savings:
The mayor estimates the cuts will save the city between $150,000 and $160,000 a year in salaries and benefits. There are now five employees left in the building department: three inspectors and two clerical workers.
“The majority of the activity in Bay St. Louis is residential construction. And the staffing that remains can very adequately handle all of the residential side of the construction process.”
Building Official Ronald Jones was the second highest paid employee in the city, with a $65,000 salary. Only the mayor made more, at $80,000 a year.
Charles Oliver, the man who oversees residential construction projects for the city, has been named the city’s interim Building Official.
As for whether or not Fillingame fired Oliver’s predecessor Ronald Jones the Seacoast Echo was pretty clear on that when the event occurred:
Bay St. Louis Building Official Ron Jones, the second highest-paid person at City Hall, lost his job this week in what Mayor Les Fillingame characterized as a cost-cutting measure.
Fillingame said Jones, who was paid $65,000-per-year, will not be replaced immediately. His job will be filled in the interim by Charles Oliver, a building inspector who earns $45,000 per year.
As building official, Jones had been second in salary only to the mayor, who makes more than $80,000 annually. Other city hall administrators and department heads are paid considerably less than Jones.
However, Jones holds a master’s degree and numerous professional certifications, which Oliver does not. “He’s working on getting his certifications. We’re going to help him,” Fillingame said of Oliver.
Jones’ last day on the job was to be Friday. As building official, he ran a department that issues building permits and handles code inspections on commercial and residential building projects. The department has been important in the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
City Hall sources said Fillingame approached the City Council in executive session during its regular meeting Tuesday, and informed members that Jones was being let go. The council has no actual authority over city personnel, but does sign off on issues involving department heads.
So this is how we ended up with one of the Mayor’s cronies as “Interim” Chief Building Official five plus years ago, replacing a fired employee that had a masters degree and various certifications including commercial, which the Mayor himself admitted at the time that Oliver lacked. Now the better question is why does Charles Oliver and the Bay Building Department keep coming up at the Council meetings? That’s simple folks, under Oliver’s leadership the building department has become a shambles. It is at this point I must use Bay St Louis’ own James Carville to illustrate.
Carville rebuilt a getaway house and guest house on what the locals knew as Pete Fountain’s property there on the Bay of St Louis. Just down Beach Boulevard from the Carvilles are permanent residents in the Thorpe family that have a nice house on the Bay. The Thorpes bought the lot behind their house and joined it to their existing land making in essence one big lot for property taxation purposes. They then began constructing a guest house on the newly joined parcel and that is where the trouble began having to deal with the Bay St Louis Building Department. For further context it is important to understand that Ron Thorpe is a member of the Hancock County Alliance for Good Government and frequent Board meeting attendee. What follows is a romp through the municipal runaround but first we have to explain how the Carvilles fit.
Above I hope everyone notices the Carville’s were able to construct their getaway residence and guest house, both very well done connected to each other via pathway. When the place was built, from the outside looking in it appears that Mr and Mrs Carville’s contractor did a great job on the construction in very short order with no apparent holdups from the Bay Building Department. For Mr. Thorp however since his house and guesthouse were not joined by a covered walkway the building department would not issue a permit, even after the Thorpes were granted a special use exception by the City Council. The lack of consistency is glaring given the obvious parallels to what the Carville’s did with the apparent blessing of the Building Department but the only consistency with the Building Department is inconsistency. Of course the Thorpes documented everything and its classic Les Fillingame passive aggression in action.
For me I look at the above as one of a long line of citizen complaints I’ve received about the Bay Building Department since Slabbed began covering municipal affairs in late 2013. Local architect Michael Reeves can cite a veritable litany of horror stories involving noncompliance with the American with Disabilities Act but like the Mayor told the media in 2011 commercial construction wasn’t his friend’s best subject. And against that backdrop we have the City Attorney terming the Mississippi Legislature’s attempt to purge professional positions in local government of unqualified, perpetually interim appointed political cronies as “knee jerk”. Based on what I saw last night Mr. Rafferty had one of those words dead on but not both.
The meeting then turned to the unauthorized raises the Mayor has been handing out to City employees like new comptroller Sissy Gonzales, who from all appearances is really the City Clerk but that position is being staffed by Paula Fairconnetue, a lady with a background in marketing rather than accounting that has turned into another perpetually interim Department Head. (Mayor Fillinagme’s refusal to hire a qualified City Clerk per the Council’s ordinance on the subject is another post). In Ms. Gonzales’ case the Council authorized the Controllers position in the budget at $48,000/year salaried. The Mayor is paying her hourly with copious amounts of overtime at an annual straight time rate of somewhere between $52,000 and $54,000 (I heard both numbers last night). Mayor Fillingame never sought Council approval for the budgetary change or for the change in the related payroll ordinance for the comptroller’s position. It’s pretty cut and dried folks but then again when the one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the State of Mississippi acts as the Mayor’s personal legal council instead of as City Attorney nothing is cut and dried and Mr. Rafferty tried his best to evade and avoid the hard questions such as those posed by an exasperated Councilman Mike Favre. It was at that point I had to document the jackassery live on Periscope. (Sorry for the audio problems folks I’m working on that).
After those fireworks the Council held an executive session on engaging special council to file a Writ of Mandamus to force the Mayor to comply with the Municipal Payroll ordinance. The Council took no action in executive session but Councilman Seal moved to send the financial detail to the State Auditor’s Office requesting an expedited review. It’s a certainty the next OSA division to show up at City Hall will be the Investigative Division as Mayor Fillingame seems hellbent on ignoring the City Council, the municipal budget and related payroll ordinance.
Finally both Heather Ladner of Butler Snow and Trent Favre of Jones Walker have offered to assist the City in an advisory capacity while the search for a permanent replacement for outgoing City Attorney Rafferty is conducted per Council President Falgout. After the meeting last night, certain members of the Alliance for Good Government expressed reservations to me about Mr. Favre, citing his defense in the social media of his “Brother in Christ”, former City Clerk David Kolf, whose bond the Council is now pursuing due to his role in the misappropriation of the Department of Justice Forfeiture funds.
I’ve never been much on mixing my government with religion, especially given Mr. Kolf’s very unchristian like behavior calling citizens such as the late Carrol Gordon a clown among other very unprofessional, childish outbursts for which he became notorious among Council meeting attendees. My own opinion is at this juncture the City needs someone to represent it, not the Mayor against the Council and certainly not former employees involved in the misappropriation of over $300,000 in public funds. I suspect there will be more chatter about that in the run up to the next City Council meeting.
Finally Stacey Cato was also there last night taking copious amounts of notes so the Saturday story for the Echo that should make for some good reading as well. I’m looking forward to it. Stay tuned.
- Traveling Judge L. Breland Hilburn Presiding