By BRADEN LAMMERS
The News and Tribune recently sat down with four Jeffersonville City Council members in the wake of a lawsuit being filed against the city’s fiscal body by the Mayor’s office.
It was the intention of the News and Tribune to discuss with the council and the mayor what they need to do to work together, examine what conflicts exist and determine how the interaction between the two city entities got to this point.
The four council members — five council members would constitute a quorum and would have to have been advertised as a public meeting — interviewed by the News and Tribune were Lisa Gill, Dennis Julius, Connie Sellers and Mike Smith.
While Mayor Mike Moore initially agreed to the interview, he ultimately declined the request to sit down with the News and Tribune regarding communications with the council. Moore via Les Merkley, city attorney, said the administration did not wish to discuss pending litigation.
The interview with the council members follows, is presented in a question-and-answer format and has been edited for space considerations.
Q: Is there, perceived or real, a conflict that exists between the city council and the mayor’s administration?
Julius: When you asked if we wanted to talk about communications with the city council and the administration, I quickly jotted down probably 10 items ... that the only way we found out about them was through a press release. I think that when ... our council is finding out about major issues in the city through a press release of one way or another ... I think it’s real unfortunate. I think it’s unfortunate for the city.
Smith: Communication isn’t always about agreement. Most projects start out between the administration and the city council, basically ... as [two] totally opposed ... parties. And through communication, debating, disagreeing, lunches or whatever, eventually ... the mayor gets his consensus, a lot of the time a majority. Communication isn’t always an agreement. Sometimes, a lot of times, it starts out as a disagreement and ends up in an agreement through a compromise.
Sellers: That’s what happened, even under Rob’s [Waiz] administration and under [Tom] Galligan’s administration. There were a lot of times we didn’t agree, but we met together and it wasn’t publicized. And sometimes things he [Galligan] wanted done didn’t happen. And nobody probably ever even knew about them — that they were being considered.
Have you reached out to try and have discussions or improved communication, or has the mayor approached you to meet?
Smith: Wednesday morning [after the election] I called at that time Mayor-elect Moore. I didn’t even know him, except for Sunday after church at Jerry’s, and there [were] a lot of questions. And there were some comments made in the papers ... about the canal, the ice skating rink, Vissing Park, because these were all used during the campaign. There was a lot of information on these projects. So, I called and I want[ed] to get together. Well, it just so happened at that time it was Nathan [Samuel] and Dennis [Julius] ... and we had multiple meetings with [Moore]. I instrumented them. The first one we had was at Ann’s on the River. So that was my attempt initially. I think we had three or four meetings, and then the last meeting he walked out of in about a minute-and-a-half.
When was the last meeting you are referring to where Moore walked out?
Julius: It was probably late November, early December [last year].
Sellers: Really, the complications started... before he even took office. He called [a] meeting and he got mad because we couldn’t be there. But then he said, ‘I set up a meeting and you didn’t come.’ Well, it’s not that we didn’t come, it was set up suddenly, it was around Christmas time and there were already other obligations. So, I think sometimes he takes that as we just didn’t want to come. I know I responded to Leah [Farris] at the time, she was our communications director, and listed the people — we cannot be here.
Gill: And that goes with the “lunch on your own” I think he calls it. Well, they picked Fridays to do it, which they knew from the very beginning Friday was a bad time [for me]. I had prior obligations and repeatedly he would say, ‘you couldn’t come. I’m here, I offer this up for us to meet. It’s disappointing no council members came.’ I always told them from the beginning I had prior obligations. It’s not that I didn’t want to attend, I could not attend. There’s a difference.
Sellers: Also, previous administrations, whenever there was a big project going on we would be called in and say “how do you feel about this project? This is what I want to do.” That doesn’t happen. What happens is, usually, the projects are done and the plans are done, and then we’re called in and we’re expected to [approve it]. If we say, “well, have you thought about this?” it’s taken almost as adversarial. It’s like, “you don’t like me and that’s why you’re saying this.” Well no, maybe I’m agreeing with the project, but maybe it would be better if we could do it like this.
Julius: There needs to be input on all of these projects. I think all of us have felt like nine members can get a whole lot more accomplished than one. And you get a more diverse project like that. When you’re just doing one person’s idea from start to finish and it’s my way or the highway sort of thing. I think that’s where your breakdown is.
Smith: Really, the city of Jeffersonville is bigger than any mayor or any council. The mayor and the council realistically, is a temp job.
There have been some changes to the Big Four Station project, are you all satisfied with how its played out?
Julius: I think we’re satisfied, but if you all remember the history of how that got done — and I was sitting on [the] redevelopment [commission] at the time. We were entertaining three proposals. Construction Solutions had a proposal that everybody really liked. It had a lot of greenspace and so forth and Wayne [Estopinal] had a proposal. And those were really the only two of the three that were considered. When it came to the meeting to do the proposal a message was sent via email that they weren’t going to hear the proposals that night ... so Peggy [Duffy, with Construction Solutions] was sent a message that said you don’t need to come and present. They had Wayne come and present and said that was the only proposal they got. I think when somebody said there’s an error of trust, it keeps going back to those things.
From what you are saying it sounds like there is an unwillingness to compromise or do you think it’s something else that’s keeping you from connecting and communicating effectively?
Julius: The last thing I want this article to achieve is more division. I don’t want that. I don’t think any of us want that.
But from an outsiders perspective, it sounds like you cannot get along.
Gill: I hear that citywide. I’m at City Hall just about every day, practically all day long, and even in the evenings too. I’m available. I’m not pulled in. I’m not included in anything. I’m not told about anything. The next thing you know I read an article in the paper that there’s something going on, whatever it is that day. And I’m like, wait a minute, I just talked to the mayor he never said a word to me. It’s like unless I read it in the paper I’m like, where is this coming from? From the outside looking in, I’m sorry, but the council is being portrayed as the bad guys, which we are not.
There has been some confusion over the hiring of specific positions by the administration and who controls those employees. Can you discuss that?
Smith: Communications was going to be handled by the attorney [and Moore] didn’t need a grant writer. This is what he told me and it made sense; basically, you can use an outside contractor [for grant writing] because they only get paid based on the grants they get versus somebody getting an annual salary. Not that I agree or disagree, but it made sense.
There were two positions: economic development, which at that time was Clarence Hulse, he was going to eliminate that, which was all unnecessary. So, our reaction as a fiscal body was to, in turn, take the money and put it back into the general fund to keep it managed.
Sellers: But we did have a meeting after that where he got several of us together. I thought was a very good meeting. It was very positive and it opened some doors of communication. I know that he called me after [about] the Anchors Aweigh program. He was communicating a little bit better and I don’t know what has happened to make it stop. Unless its a sewer issue. That’s the only thing that I can think of ... which we didn’t think was a problem because he signed the ordinance.
[Regarding paying to move the Ruben Wells house]
Julius: He was trying to get $25,000 from the council, and $25,000 from redevelopment and we said it’s a redevelopment project. It fits all the criteria for a redevelopment project. That whole area is. And so he looked at me at that meeting and said, “so are you going to support the $25,000 from the council?” I said, “no.” He goes, “so you don’t support moving the house?” I said, “I think it’s a redevelopment project. I think redevelopment should pay for it.” [He said] “So you don’t support the project?” I said, “I support the project.” You know, it’s manipulation like that, especially in public meetings that doesn’t need to happen.
How do you move past these issues and be able to work together?
Julius: I think if we look at history, and you look at [Moore’s record] when he was on the County Commissioners, he wasn’t a good communicator. He didn’t communicate with the air board. He didn’t communicate with the hospital. He didn’t communicate with the other commissioners. There was always an infighting. You know, we almost have a common denominator here and we have tried, and continue to try to reach out.
We had a meeting about the animal shelter being unfunded with Sarah Green. It was a closed-door session. My comment was ... when we found out the animal shelter was going to be a no-kill, did you not think that was going to cost more? And we read it in the paper. People are calling us and saying, “so you’re making your shelter no-kill?” and we have to fund it. So, they’re in there asking for more money. You talk about communication, that would’ve been nice to know because we’re doing the budget for next year. It’s already been turned in. [That is] $66,000 more dollars we’re going to need.
What is your vision for the city, what would you like to see accomplished and what direction would you like to see the city go?
Sellers: I would like to see the canal, but that’s not going to happen, at least not under this mayor. We need economic development. I look at the redevelopment plans that he has in here ... and none of it has to do with really bringing businesses in. I mean, I’m thinking big corporations. And we’ve got an Allison Brooke Park, a 23-mile bike and hike, which [Gill] and I both received several complaints on that because it goes through the middle of Northhaven, which is in my district.
Smith: Which you weren’t aware of.
Sellers: Yeah. The Jeffersonville marina, Veterans Parkway and Holmans Lane — now that could be because that’s going to be the extension and of course businesses will move in once that is developed. The Preserve, which is in my district, and Chestnut Street [reconstruction] but none of those are meant to bring in businesses. But that’s what redevelopment dollars are supposed to be used for, is to bring back in businesses and use those tax dollars to develop a blighted area. And I just don’t know what businesses are going to be moving in here.
Not only that, some of the prices on this stuff, I think they’re dreaming what it’s going to cost. As low-balling, like the marina. I think they had $100,000 down originally and then they upped to $600,000. And that’s to put in a floating wall and do all this stuff. And by the time you get just construction plans and engineering plans and go through the [Army] Corps [of Engineers], it’s going to cost more than that.
Gill: I have always looked at the big picture for Jeff. We’re sitting on the threshold. We could be great because we can do what New Albany no longer can do, Sellersburg can’t do it, Clarksville can’t do it because they’re landlocked. We have River Ridge, we’ve got two bridges coming in here, we’re a little town here that could be a gold mine if we start with economic development. If we start thinking outside the box because we’ve got the main [route to] get to the bridges, we’re close to [Interstate] 65, we’re centrally located, we’re on the water. We’ve got the potential of bringing some good paying jobs in for this city.
I don’t like to see what I read in the paper. I don’t like to see what I read in the blogs, because [it’s] the first thing that these companies look at when they Google us. And I’ve gone to the mayor several times. I’ve said to him, “call a workshop, do what we have to do.” I’m not aware half of this stuff is going on and I’m in [City Hall] all the time. What we put out there, [companies] look at it and we’re probably passed over on several things already that we don’t even know about. All eyes are on us right now because of Amazon being here. We’ve got the potential here. And another big thing for me is I look at the city ... we have got so many great little neighborhoods that make up Jeffersonville. I look at it, I want to build up each of those neighborhoods.
That’s why we started the Jeffersonville neighborhood leadership alliance. I think if we build up our neighborhoods and where we’re standing on the opportunity here, I’ll tell you Jeff can be great. We can catapult right up there.
Sellers: But you have to have leadership that sees it.
Gill: You have to have leadership and you have to have somebody positive. You have to sell Jeffersonville. You have to showcase it, sell it, market it each and every day. I mean, you just have to.
Smith: I’m more of a brick and mortar kind of guy. I believe in three words: infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. That’s what I’m big in. Downtown Jeffersonville, if you go talk to any developers or any of these people anywhere from Nashville, Tenn., to Dallas, Texas, by my district being right on 65, it’s a known fact that when people see something off an interstate they’ll go to it. If they can’t see it, it’s hard to get them to it. That’s a big deal.
I need sewers, I need curbs and sidewalks. I want to be able to say you can start digging tomorrow buddy because it’s there. That’s my key thing. And a water conveyance system.
Julius: I think River Ridge is our diamond. The east end of our city is going to develop on its own. I am for being a business background and doing literally taking projects myself from people thinking you’re absolutely crazy and turning them into something that’s viable for the community.
We’ve got a history of that. We’ve done that. If you look at our opportunity here in Jeffersonville in the downtown, if you go to other cities, they tell you that the heartbeat of that city is their downtown because it’s got nostalgia that you can’t build. People are always attracted to go downtown. So, you try and entice restaurants and knickknack shops and whatever your niches are to come down here. What I’m saying is, be it the canal, be it some other economic development tool, we’ve already put our investment up. I would be looking for private business to join with the city to come up with a dynamic proposal and we’ve got people that can put that together.
And [Smith’s] right in the infrastructure. In all of the plans that we have done for the past three years on this project downtown, it all had to do with infrastructure. How are you going to cross the canal? What are you going to need on the other side of that canal? Because it’s huge to determine what’s going to be on the other side of that canal or whatever that project is. But I think that you’ve got the opportunity to build something that when your relatives come in from out-of-town, or you’re entertaining a guest, you can take them down there and you’ve got something to be proud of. And say this is where I live, this is my city. And let me tell you, when you build something like that, that’s that dramatic, businesses are going to feed off of that as well.
And you look at Amazon, or some of these other companies that were coming in well before the first of the year, you read some of these articles that Mike put in, and I get it, he’s pumping his administration up. That’s cool. But anybody knows that Amazon was coming before January. But that’s OK. We get over all of that. That’s not material stuff. I’m kind of like [Smith]. Let’s build some brick and mortar to get people to come to Jeffersonville and the citizens of Jeffersonville are proud to show it off. That’s key. That’s big.
Do you all have hope that the next three years will be better than this past year in terms of communication?
Julius: We hope.
Gill: We always have hope.
Julius: I don’t want you guys to be under the impression that we never meet with [Moore], because that’s not true. We have meetings with [Moore] and his administration. The two attorneys, we’re always in a meeting with the one of them. In the last 30 days I’ve probably been in, myself, probably two or three meetings with four or five people and [Moore]. So, I don’t want you to think we’re avoiding him or anything else, because we’re not.
Gill: And I can speak for myself ... not one of my votes has to do with whether I’m for the mayor or against the mayor. Everyone of my votes is what’s set before us, and I do my own research, and I talk to the people that it affects. That’s where my vote comes from.
Do the council and the mayor’s office have to get along to be effective?
Smith: They have to be honest.
Gill: If you want to move the city forward you have to, because you have to work as a team.
Julius: You have to have a trust.
Smith: You have to have a trust factor. I was under the last administration ... but I trusted in his belief in downtown ... but that doesn’t mean that I agreed with him and that doesn’t mean that we didn’t have harsh words.
Sellers: Well, I think the perception is, does getting along mean you agree with me 100 percent of the time? No, but I feel that’s the way Mike views it. If you disagree with me then that’s about it.
How can Jeffersonville residents have faith in the relationship between the council and the mayor will improve or have an assurance things can get better or be accomplished?
Gill: I encourage the people to get more involved. If you see something, you hold us accountable. If you go to these different meetings you will see — I have a whole row of people in my neighborhood that goes to every single council meeting and what they read in the paper, they’re like wait a minute here. And when you say about trusting, you cannot have a meeting with somebody that tells you one thing and then the minute you go out the door the game changes. We’ve been told several things in a meeting — like I told you I do my own research — and when I go for that research we were told absolutely wrong things. I don’t know how to better say it, or [were] given misinformation. It’s kind of hard to work on something like that.
Sellers: It’s just like, and I know we can’t talk about the lawsuit, but we were out-of-town actually ... and when we get back in the first thing we see is we’re being sued by the mayor. That was so unnecessary because it was only on a first reading that the communications thing [was approved]. He could’ve come and spoke to us without it ever going to the newspaper. But we didn’t know anything about it.
I mean [Council Attorney] Scott [Lewis] got a phone call and he didn’t know what they were talking about because he had not [seen the lawsuit. How can we deal with that with someone who would rather try and get the public behind him without letting us know what he’s thinking? How can you do that?
And ProMedia ... could have been a common denominator answer, maybe. I don’t know.
Julius: Bring it to us. Discuss it, you know. One thing that I will say, and I’m new on the council, I look at the council kind of like a board of directors. You’ve got a really good board of directors. You know, we don’t agree all the time, but we do communicate very well. The nine of us communicate and discuss ... how come you don’t agree with that? And that dialogue really helps.
Maybe you can convince me not to agree with it or maybe I can convince you to agree with it. But that’s where we go when I was saying earlier. It’s not one person’s opinion, it’s nine. So, to have somebody come in and say I want to be the parks authority instead of you nine, or I want to dictate where TIF [Tax Increment Finance] dollars go, not you nine. I think that’s where your breakdown comes.
Sellers: Again that goes to being told two different things. The parks authority we were told he was fine with it and then we find out in the lawsuit he’s not fine with it after we’ve been going for almost a year now. If you’re going to change your mind constantly, at least let us know.