Dissent erupts at ES council meeting

Friday, December 17, 2010 ~ Updated 6:02 PM

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Local Boy Scouts attending Monday's City Council meeting were treated to some volcanic city government action.

The meeting started quietly enough with a gift cake from David and Joanne Graupner, who thanked the outgoing council, Mayor Dani Joy, and retiring City Clerk Mary Jean Sell, for the good work done during their terms.

By the end of the meeting, Sell had endured a debate regarding her pension, and alderman Patrick Brammer had managed to strip $10,000 from Parks and Recreation's working budget and have it allocated to a Land Bank fund.

Council had met with the intention of discussing the 2011 budget, which city Finance Director Yvonne Kline said was a deliberately conservative one. She had assumed, she said, a three percent decrease in next year's sales, but expenses were noted at a five percent increase. The budget as presented did not include the annual pension council approved for Sell.

It did, however, include money for new signs and a new lawnmower for the cemetery, which council removed from the budget. The money shifted away from the parks department was to pay for security cameras at Harmon Park and several springs, as part of an effort to stop vandalism.

Brammer moved to delete the parks money, and the motion failed. He repeatedly brought the topic up, imploring other aldermen to make the motion, since he could not repeat his motion. He then moved to set aside the money saved by the parks cut for the Land Bank, and that motion passed. There was a great deal of confusion around the Land Bank and what had actually been accomplished, and Joy had to say several times, "the land bank was never approved. You never set up anything in the budget."

Alderman Mickey Schneider kept remarking how confused she was by the budget discussion, and she and Brammer ended up in a side discussion that was so far outside Robert's Rules of Order the mayor threatened to throw her gavel at them if they did not quiet down.

Brammer never made clear why he was so set against providing the money for parks.

Parks Director Bruce Levine, who said he had been home in his pajamas ready to watch Monday Night Football, stormed into the meeting furious that he had never been invited to a budget workshop to explain why his department needed the money he had requested.

"We do things to improve the city, things like the dog park and repairing rock walls that are falling down. There is enormous vandalism at the springs and in the park, and the surveillance equipment is to protect the city from thousands of dollars in losses," he said. During this, Brammer's cell phone rang audibly, and he took time to shut it off, prompting Levine to say "Are you ready to pay attention yet, Patrick?"

Levine noted in 2002 he had told the council parks needed more than the tax money they got to continue making improvements.

"It's hideous to dismiss us out of hand without talking to us," he said.

Schneider suggested he take it up with the next council, and Levine pointed out that when it comes to a city budget, "it is much harder to add than subtract."

There was also debate about whether the council should even pass the budget resolution, with Schneider arguing it was unfair to let a green council come to the table with a 30-day window to finalize a budget when they had no experience, and Joy said it was irresponsible to leave a new administration with no budget.

The main opponent to approval was alderman Beverly Blankenship, who pointed out there was no line item anywhere for the Aud, to which Joy replied the responsibility of city government was the health and general welfare of the public, not entertainment.

The budget passed, although the new city council and mayor will be able to make any changes deemed necessary once they take office.

Other business

* Thom Tharp and Ray Dotson both applied for an available carriage franchise, with Dotson describing himself as a successful businessman with carriage and coach franchises in several cities. Tharp acknowledged he was a smaller operator, but said his carriage rides were highlighted by a running commentary about Eureka Springs history as well as a listing of events currently happening in the city.

Although both men were recognized as good businessmen who could benefit the city, council awarded the franchise to Tharp. This will give him two carriage routes through town. The lone dissenter on the vote was Brammer.

* Mary Jean Sell's pension was approved, although it will be up to the next council to fund it in the budget.

* Resolution 572, to give domestic partner benefits to city personnel, passed.

* The county, according to Joy, will not yield on its demands to end the city's lease of the parking lot at the courthouse.

"We're out of the lot, and by next month the lease on our downstairs offices is over," she said. However, it appears the city can lease space in the Transit Center, which would give Eureka Springs a city hall that is ADA compliant and green. Joy said the location would provide plenty of parking and after the first year's build-out expenses, would save the city more than $40,000 in expenses annually.

The county would also be responsible for the collapsing parking lot near the Aud, according to alderman Joyce Zeller, as well as having to install an ADA compliant elevator in the current courthouse, and keep it open for marriage licenses.

When aldermen expressed some desire to remain in the courthouse and asked if perhaps the parking lot lease could be negotiated, Mayor-elect and County Justice of the Peace Morris Pate said no, adding, "The rates would not go down even if they know what's going to happen."

Per the lease, the city will need to give the county several months written notice before vacating the courthouse, although alderman James DeVito indicated he spoke for many at the table when he said, "I'm ready to do it tonight!"

* Joy ended the meeting and her term by reminding everyone the city had gotten more than $3.5 million in grants during this administration and "worked our tail ends off" making changes.

"We finished the sewer plant and repaired parts of the historic district that been ignored for years. And we're back in front of the state again ... they no longer ignore us."

She concluded with a plea for the residents of Eureka Springs to work together and not make disputes public, so the city doesn't look foolish.

"There is still a huge division in this town, but this table is not a reality TV show, even though some people seem to see it that way," she added. "We're proud of what we've done."

Newly elected Eureka Springs Mayor, Morris Pate, and all new and returning aldermen, will be sworn into office at 8 a.m. on Jan. 1 at the courthouse.

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