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July 20, 2012

New Albany human rights commission gets approval

Council splits vote over bill payment authority

NEW ALBANY — A white university professor and a black state Senate moderator are the first two appointments to the municipal Human Rights Commission, as the New Albany City Council established the body on final reading Thursday.

With an 8-0 vote, as Councilman Pat McLaughlin was absent, Councilman Greg Phipps’ ordinance ordaining the commission passed after it was approved unanimously on first and second readings earlier this month.

The commission will weigh human rights complaints that can be submitted by any New Albany resident. Upholding equal opportunity for education, employment and property acquisition are among the charges of the body.

The ordinance was revised between second and final readings in order to “tighten up” the definition of disabled as well as to ensure the council must approve any procedures the commission chooses to implement, Phipps said.

While there was little discussion on the measure before it was passed on final reading, Phipps said previously he would like to see board appointees “reflect the diversity of the community.”  

The body will consist of five members, two appointed by the mayor, two selected by the council and the remaining person elected by the four designees.

Mayor Jeff Gahan’s selections for the commission were announced by his staff after the ordinance passed.

Cliff Staten, a white professor of Political Science at Indiana University Southeast joined Tonye Rutherford, a black state senate moderator and former city council candidate as Gahan selections.

Phipps requested the council make its appointments during its next meeting, which will be Aug. 6. Council President Diane McCartin-Benedetti requested council members submit names of nominees to her so they can be considered prior to that meeting.

Stalemate on board of works authority

The council gave authority to the Board of Pubic Works and Safety to approve bill payments, and it also has the power to take back that oversight.

That was the opinion rendered by council attorney Matt Lorch on Thursday prior to the final vote on a measure calling for the body to assume claims approvals from the board of works.

The council ceded claims authority to the board of works in 1988.

The measure failed on first and second readings, and with McLaughlin absent for the third ballot, the ordinance drew a 4-4 vote Thursday. A Gahan administration-hired attorney from Indianapolis stated earlier this month that in his opinion based on the city’s ordinance, the council could not proceed with the move without the mayor’s approval.

But Lorch contested, among other reasons he gave for proceeding with the vote, that the mayor would still retain veto power over the claims process thus the executive branch really wasn’t losing any authority.

Lorch also said a measure isn’t considered defeated unless it fails to pass on third reading, which contrasted with the opinion of city attorney Stan Robison.

An ordinance defeated by the council on first reading should be “considered as still” for the second ballot, Robison said. According to his opinion, the measure calling for claims authority to go back to the city council shouldn’t have proceeded after it was voted down on the first ballot.

“In my opinion, of course, the ordinance was dead on the second reading,” Robison said, as he reminded the council the attorney hired to review the ordinance by the administration disagreed with Lorch’s take on the legislative body’s power in the matter.

Without discussion among the council members, the third vote was tallied at 4-4. McLaughlin voted against the ordinance on first and second readings, and his ballot may have to be cast on a fourth reading for the measure.

The council amended its procedural rules last year to state a resolution or ordinance doesn’t pass or fail without a majority vote.

Officials didn’t clarify if a fourth vote would be called for, but the measure would likely fail unless McLaughlin were to change his mind. The four council members that voted against the ordinance earlier this month — Dan Coffey, Scott Blair, John Gonder and Phipps — also declined to support it Thursday.

Councilman Kevin Zurschmiede sponsored the measure and touted it as another tool for the council to use to ensure financial record keeping is consistent with state guidelines.

The municipal bills that would be reviewed if the council regained approval authority aren’t tied to payroll expenses and shouldn’t slow down day-to-day operations of the city, Zurschmiede and others in support of the measure have stated.

A follow-up report provided by the private firm hired by the council to come up with suggestions for rectifying past discrepancies and bookkeeping mistakes as cited in previous State Board of Accounts audits was read into the record Thursday.

The firm — The London Witte Group — addressed the claims authority debate in its report and defined leaving claims approval power with the board of works as the “least efficient choice” for ensuring the accuracy of claims approvals.

It was the firm that suggested the council retake claims authority approval in June in its initial report, as it recommended the legislative body oversee bills for infrastructure projects and various other expenses.

In its follow-up report, The London Witte Group called for the council to meet with the mayor and garner his approval, if necessary, to move forward with taking back claims payment authority.

The audits in question were not associated with Gahan’s administration, as the latest one on record covers 2010. The next audit that will be released this year will account for 2011, which was Doug England’s last year as mayor.

It will be 2013 before an audit reviewing how the Gahan administration has handled financial bookkeeping will be released.

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