The Martin City Council spent nearly two hours on Tuesday, Sept. 24, hashing out questions that have been posed for months, and nearly all of those questions were left unanswered.
The council tabled the approval of bills for August because there were no answers to questions about city cell phones and gas bills and how the city is paying bills when it recorded a $15,000 deficit last month and a $55,000 deficit this month. When asked repeatedly, city officials could not report how much debt Martin owes. An audience member told these officials that the city’s last audit should provide that information.
The discussion between council members, city employees and the audience became heated at times, with Council Member Bonita Compton, Clerk Ethel Clouse and Deputy Clerk Sharon Caudill raising their voices and making snide remarks to each other, and with Council Member James Reynolds screaming back at loud complaints made by audience member Kathryn “Catbird” Isaac, who cursed at least twice in the meeting and questioned whether a board member had been appointed to a city agency inappropriately.
“I mean, is somebody sleeping with them, or drinking with them or something? They got to be something going on here. I mean, it’s obvious. This has become a damn circus,” Isaac said.
Discussions at this meeting bounced back and forth between topics repeatedly.
The questions started with a motion to approve bills, as Compton asked why the city is spending $5,000 for gasoline for five city vehicles. As she has previously requested, Compton asked for a report showing how much each gas card holder uses.
“I think that with the shape that we’re in we need to know where the gas, what’s going on with it,” Compton said.
Clouse and Caudill said they compiled that information for Compton but she did not pick it up.
Mayor Sam Howell reported that Martin has five gas cards, two in his possession, one for the fire department and two for the police department. Compton said she knew of another city employee who has a gas card and Howell reported employees can also check out gas cards.
Council members discussed what was described as an accidental payment of $3,600 to Martin Tourism for about 15 minutes, during which Compton asked how Clouse separates her time with the city and tourism. Clouse gets paid by both the city and the tourism.
“What hours does Ethel do that (tourism) bookkeeping?” Compton asked. “Because if I’m correct, the city of Martin employs her from, for eight hours a day to do Martin, not tourism. And she does get a salary from tourism.”
“She does, yes,” Caudill said.
“Who knows? We don’t know,” Compton said.
Clouse reassured Compton.
“They ain’t nobody trying to hide nothing. I can tell you that,” she said.
Compton then asked, for the third month, about city cell phone bills. Howell reported that he went to Appalachian Wireless to discuss the city’s contract and that he believes the city will now save money. He said, however, that he did not get a new contract.
Compton asked for a breakdown of who has phones in the city and whether city employees — some of whom have phones for their non-employed spouses — are reimbursing the city for those phones.
“I got that laying on the table. I’ll get you a copy of it,” Howell told her. “I went over there and we broke it all down.”
Council members, city officials
don’t understand open records
The council’s lack of understanding about open meetings and open records laws was at the forefront of this meeting.
At one point, Caudill asked whether city council members were required to file open records requests to access city documents, which is contrary to open records laws.
“I’ve have a question. Do city councilmen need to ask for information in writing, just like an open records request. I’m confused about this,” she said.
No one answered the question.
Clouse suggested that people be required to schedule an appointment to review city records, which is also contrary to open records laws.
“Can’t we have them set a time where they want to come by and look at this stuff? Nobody’s trying to hide nothing,” she said. “It’s out in the open, until they set a time, and if it’s okay with you, they can come out and look at it, the checks that’s wrote and the bills that come in. I’ve told them that before. I just can’t—.”
No one responded to her question.
When Clouse could not answer questions about why the city paid $8,300 to U.S. Bank, Council Member April Gayheart made a motion to go into closed session to discuss “litigation and some personnel stuff, issues” but City Attorney Doug Adams advised against it, saying the meeting was already underway and the agenda had been set.
Gayheart said, “If we can change it for one thing, we ought to be able to change it for that.”
“We changed it once,” Council Member James Reynolds said, referring to one of three actions taken at the meeting — a vote to amend the agenda to add public comment.
“Do what you want to, then,” Gayheart said.
At that point, Compton threw up her hands.
“I ain’t approving nothing,” she said.
Gayheart raised the question again and was told, again, that the council could not amend the agenda.
“Can we amend the agenda?” Gayheart asked.
“Well, you’ve asked me that. You’ve already amended it and approved it as amended. So in my opinion, you can’t because you’ve already started conducting business, under the agenda as amended,” Adams said.
Reynolds asked how the city sets the agenda and whether council members can provide input before the agendas are released.
He was told it was possible and that the council previously talked about that.
“Shouldn’t we do that before we have our meetings, then?” Reynolds asked.
“If we need to know stuff like this, shouldn’t all of us just come here and tell them, I mean, instead of getting here and making such a fuss in front of everyone, shouldn’t we just go ahead and do that?”
Compton suggested, again, that the city “have a meeting before the meeting” to discuss items.
She said she’s asked for gasoline and cell phone purchases to be on the agenda for three months, but it has not happened.
Martin did not approve a budget for this fiscal year, and the city is required to rely on its previous budget. When Compton asked for a copy of it, she was told it was published in the newspaper last year.
questions from the audience
Audience members asked several questions about city finances at this meeting.
The first question came from Martin business owner Terry Thornsberry, who repeatedly asked what the city’s total debts are.
He said, “It’s not rocket science.”
Clouse said she could get the city’s total indebtedness. No one, however, answered that question.
One audience member asked how the city paid bills over the past month, when the deficit was recorded as $15,000 last month and $55,000 this month.
“We’ve asked that question every month we’ve come in here, I since I’ve been sitting in this chair ” Compton said. “I can’t answer it.”
Another audience member said, “The money must come from some place or they would have shut you all off. I’m just saying you must be paying bills someway or they would have cut you off of gas and tires and phones.”
“We are paying bills,” Clouse said.
Audience member Rita Daniels said if bills are being paid, it should be a “simple matter” to provide a list of the people who have cell phones and gas cards and how much those items cost the city.
Isaac chimed in. “Well, I’ll just tell you why you ain’t going to get that list, honey,” she said. “Because Tom, Dick and Harry has the phones.”
She and Compton said they both know a former employee who still has a city phone. The city revealed in prior open records requests that employees are permitted to buy phones for the spouses who are not employed with the city, with officials saying that employees reimburse the city for the cost. Compton previously asked for proof of those reimbursements.
Thornsberry raised a question that had not been asked this year at a council meeting.
“Well, I don’t understand something … I was under the impression that when you come in here and you approve the bills for last month, then you pay those bills,” Thornsberry said. “But, apparently, you pay those bills and then come out here and ask you all to approve them retroactively. Is that the way we’re doing it? … Apparently, it’s retroactive. You all are approving bills that’s already been paid. You approve to pay them, but it’s retroactive.”
He was informed that the city has approved bills retroactively for years.
“That’s not the way we do it at the Floyd County board,” said Compton, who works for the school district.
Thornsberry said, “I mean, I thought you had, when you approved bills, then they were paid. And they wasn’t paid until the council approved them.”
“They shouldn’t be,” Council Member Harold Case said.
Reynolds said the council has retroactively approved bills for as long as he’s been a council member.
“The way the city’s operated since I’ve been on the city council, they spend the money each month. At the end of that month, the following month, we have our city council meeting. They present us with what they spent the money on and we either approve it or not,” Reynolds said.
Isaac asked Reynolds whether he knows every dime spent in the city.
“I don’t keep up with every dime,” he said.
“But that’s what I’m saying. That’s what your job is to do,” Isaac said. “You are to know what is spent because you all are responsible because you’re sitting here voting on this.”
Reynolds raised his voice at Isaac.
“I don’t agree with you,” he said. “We hire people to do that.”
He then screamed at Isaac, telling her, “I’m not telling you that and I’m not sitting here and arguing with you. We’ve got city employees that take care of our bills. That’s what they were hired to do. If they’re not doing that properly, that falls on us, the city council.”
Daniels asked what happens if the council does not approve a bill after it’s paid.
“That hasn’t happened, so I don’t know,” Reynolds said.
Compton voiced her frustration.
“Sam, we’ve sat here and bashed. Tell us what your plan in your view is for this city,” Compton asked. “Other than getting me off city council, tell us you want to do in this city. I mean, let’s give you time here to say what you want to see. I think you know, as well as I do, you’re sitting there, you’re not crazy. You know this can’t go on. Tell us, Bub, what your view is on this.”
“I just want to see, as everybody else said, I just want to see the city grow,” Howell said.
Compton asked him, “Do you think we’re growing right now, Sam?”
“No, you ain’t going to grow as long as all of this stuff is going on,” he said.
Compton talked about the need for a budget and for Martin to “live amongst our means.”
“I don’t care if I’m sitting here, or any of us are sitting here, if we can’t tell people and there can’t be clarity out there, then none of us need to be here,” she said.
Case said, “That’s right.”
Compton continued, “And we should be, every one, thrown out if we can’t tell people where money’s going and what is going on. And we have to put out there what we’re doing.”
Isaac said taxpayers should know about city business as well.
“As taxpayers, we’re supposed to know what’s going on,” Isaac said. “The last group found that out, but some of them got left out. But I’m telling you this. As taxpayers, we should know what’s going on and I think some of you all are doing good jobs. But you know, you need to get a computer system, or some kind of system, where you know, Sam, what’s going on every day. Because you’re the man that holds all these hands, regardless of whether you know it or not, you do.”
Audience member Deanna Mullins suggested that Clouse needs help with city finances, saying someone with “fresh eyes” needs to look at the city’s records.
“It’s not exactly fresh eyes,” Gayheart said. “It’s eyes that’s been here that’s not seen anything, and we all need to come in and have some worksessions and we need to sit down and if we have some worksessions and can all work together, we can get some of this stuff straightened out. But it’s got to be straightened out. I did not realize what a mess until tonight… but this is what we’re on here for. We need to get together. We need to sit down and work together and figure out what to do. If we need spreadsheets, we need to know what needs to be on them. If we don’t know, we can’t do it. If we haven’t seen it, we can’t do anything about it. So, that’s just my point of view.”
Isaac said the world is “too modern not to have some kind of system where everybody knows what’s going on.”
At one point, she said, “There’s just too many questions asked, and nobody’s answering them. And I’m a little bit upset over that.”
She asked audience members whether they got their answers. Several people said no.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Isaac said. “When we come in here — and I know you all work and you do a job — but when you have that agenda, you should be able to say, well, we’re $10,000 in debt. We brought in $5,000 yesterday. We sold $200 worth of popcorn last night. But we don’t have nothing, and I don’t understand that. And why can’t anybody answer a question? I’m not putting anybody on the spot. I’m just saying we’ve asked simple questions and we didn’t get an answer.”
“For months,” Daniels said.
Council members voice frustrations
Before the meeting ended, Compton and Gayheart reported that members of the city council have been questioning whether Compton lives in the city limits.
“I will challenge anybody that says that I do not live in the city limits of Martin,” Compton said.
She told council members, “If you want a challenge, then we’ll go to Frankfort.”
She said she had an attorney “that is more than waiting and I know that it’s coming right here out of this office.”
Reynolds raised his voice to her.
“Who are you accusing, exactly?” he asked. “I haven’t said anything about you.”
Gayheart said someone told her this information.
“They said it straight to my face that she did not live in the city,” she said. “And I told them that she did and they said that she didn’t. And I said well before you start checking her, you better check this other person.”
They talked about Kris Rudder, who chairs the tourism board, but does not live in the city, while Isaac asked why a Knott County resident is on the housing board.
Praising the police and fire departments in Martin, Isaac told council members they need to work together.
“We’ve got a good little city here, but we got some wheels that need greased; that you got to get fixed,” she said. “And we’ve got to pull together to fix our town instead of cutting each other’s throats.”
Reynolds said, “I agree with you.”
The council discussed calling a special meeting next week.
After a motion was made to adjourn, several audience members said they would second it.
“I third it,” one of them said.