Council Members Encourage Residents to Attend Meetings
By Will Johnson
ELKHART – With the firestorm of controversy the Elkhart City Council has found itself in over the last several months, an invitation was extended to Mayor Mike Gordon, Mayor Pro Tem Billy Jack Wright, Elkhart City Secretary Carla Sheridan and City Attorney Blake Armstrong to clear the air.
The city leaders accepted the invitation and on Friday, July 28, they sat down with The Messenger to discuss a wide range of issues facing the city.
Asked about the disconnect between what the city council is trying to accomplish in Elkhart and what area residents perceive, the mayor pro tem spoke first.
“The citizens of Elkhart have always gone along with whatever the city council is doing. They really don’t know. They just go along with what has been done for many decades and past councils. They have a tendency to only hear what they want to hear,” Wright said.
He added most Elkhart residents don’t bother to attend council meetings “… unless they have a personal reason. They refuse to engage with the city council. It is all street talk and by the time it leaves here, it gets talked and re-talked and they refuse to understand what we are really trying to do.”
The mayor echoed Wright’s comments.
“There is a lot more to running a city than fixing a water leak or unclogging a sewage pipe. There are a lot more statutes the city has to abide by – state and federal laws. It’s a serious deal. We have to have the right people here with the proper licensing to run our city. I wish people would come to more of these council meetings to see what we are really doing up here,” Gordon said.
Wright added previous council members and mayors, with the exception of former Mayor Pro Tem Randy McCoy, ever show up at the meetings.
“All they want to do is get behind the scenes and get on their Facebook and go at us. If they would come to the city council meetings, we might want to ask them a few things and they may want to say something back to us. We never see those folks, however,” Wright said. “It’s obvious they’re not getting what they want. The city has to do the right thing and I guess what they have done – in our opinion – is not the right thing. We have reversed, annulled and we work on something every day that has been, what I would say is a pretty good task to undo a wrongdoing.”
“It’s terrible to have to come in here and sweep up a bunch of nonsense,” he said.
Gordon picked up where Wright left off.
“Every year, the (outside) auditor would bring a report to show how the city was doing. She (Kim Johnson with the accounting firm of Todd, Hamaker and Johnson) made a recommendation for several years that the city needed to hire a bookkeeper to clean the books up. They never did. The previous councils went against the auditor’s recommendation,” the mayor said.
He added the city has now employed a bookkeeper and “… she has helped us out immensely to trying to get our books in order.”
One of the biggest struggles faced by the Elkhart City Council in the last few years has been the council’s tempestuous relationship with the Elkhart Volunteer Fire Department.
Wright traced the problem back to the discovery of a resolution by the city secretary pertaining to a substation of the EVFD. The matter was placed on the council’s agenda for discussion.
“It was known as the 413 U.S. Hwy 287 South substation. That is Mr. (Randy) McCoy’s residence,” Wright said.
McCoy is a former mayor pro tem of the city and the current EVFD Fire Chief.
“In that discussion of the particular agenda item,” he continued, “Mr. McCoy was in the audience and I don’t recall him saying much of anything. We were not going to recognize as a city – we really don’t have that much to do with the fire department – and being that it (substation recognized) had been done, we felt we needed to undo it.”
“During the course of the discussion on that agenda item,” Wright continued, “he (McCoy) had said he did not have to put out any fires in the city of Elkhart – nor in the county – without a contract. That is what – in my opinion – started the majority of this.”
Another issue between the city and the EVFD concerned the city’s desire to see the fire department’s books to see where the money given to the fire department was being spent.
City Secretary Carla Sheridan explained because of the uproar on social media surrounding the EVFD and financing, she had made copies of the records which showed the city donations to the EVFD.
“Those are not manipulated. They came straight out of QuickBooks. We gave the fire department $27,000 for four years straight during the budget process. Over a six year period, I believe it was over $151,000. In addition to that $151,000, we also paid the EVFD’s electric bill out of a deficit water account for six plus years,” she said.
“The fire department account had $50,000 in it. If you are in here in the city office and you’re doing your job – doing your due diligence – items like a landfill, misinformation on the accounting aspects, these were things that were done back here (in the council chambers) that just seemed wrong. Appointing your house as a substation…” Sheridan said.
City Attorney Blake Armstrong questioned if the city had been insuring the EVFD vehicles.
Sheridan replied yes and said it was a huge liability to the city.
“This council stepped in back in 2015, when the previous council walked out, in my opinion, no matter how they are related or not related, by law it is legal. It was run by the Texas Municipal League and the city attorney. They stepped in and started asking questions that should have been asked a long time ago,” she said.
In 2015, Errol Tatum was elected as mayor of Elkhart and his first meeting in the position got off to a rocky start. Two weeks after being elected, Councilman Bill Yonts resigned on May 22. In a letter from Yonts to the mayor and council, he stated he was leaving for personal reasons.
As the May 22 meeting progressed, a lengthy debate on how to fill the vacancy was held which resulted in council members Gordon and Wright leaving the meeting.
By early August of 2015, City Secretary Jan Stuteville had resigned as had Public Works Supervisor Coordinator Gregg Lewis. Later that same month, Wright and Gordon filed formal charges on Tatum with the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office after Tatum allegedly denied a request for an item to be placed on the agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting on Aug. 17.
September of 2015 saw the Elkhart City Council near implosion. Hobbs had previously resigned and Tatum abruptly resigned as mayor during a Sept. 14 meeting. In a meeting held on Sept. 15, Chris Sheridan was appointed to the council and Councilman Randy McCoy resigned.
Newly appointed Councilman Andrew Chavarrilla was elected as the Mayor Pro Tem of the council and when asked why Tatum had resigned, he answered, “He said he had had it. That was it.”
Beverly Anderson was later appointed to fill the seat vacated by Hobbs. Chris Sheridan is the husband of City Secretary Carla Sheridan.
“Insuring vehicles for the fire department is one thing. The taxpayers paying for insurance on vehicles that were no longer even running for four plus years is a disgrace to the taxpayers while our infrastructure is failing and falling apart,” the city secretary continued.
Sheridan said the city had been fined over $20,000 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality because the water system had been neglected.
The city secretary said in addition to the four vehicles that did not work, there were seven others in the city’s name that were uninsured and could not be found. Furthermore, she added the city had been paying insurance premiums on vehicles from the South Anderson County First Responders organization – a non-profit owned by Randy McCoy.
“I have looked back in the minutes as far back as 1933 and nowhere did I ever see where the council approved covering those vehicles. What has happened is this has caused there to be no transparency between the some of the finances concerning the fire department and the city and South Anderson County First Responders,” she said.
Sheridan said it was her belief the current council had helped create some transparency as to where the money was spent.
“We needed to create some separation – some transparency – so the taxpayers can see what they are paying for. When we tell them we can’t afford a new well or we tell them we have to pay fines because we can’t afford to fix our infrastructure, we should at least be able to show them where their money is going,” she explained.
“I’m just going to say,” Sheridan said. “Poor record keeping, oversight, irresponsibility – things I see as a tax payer and not the city secretary – with what has been done with the finances of the city. The finances were so intertwined, you couldn’t see where the finances were going. The council stepped up and said we want to see what the fire department actually costs the citizens of Elkhart to support it.”
Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.