Judge says Mount Vernon council usurped mayor’s authority

By Bill Heltzel

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A judge has ruled that Mount Vernon officials blatantly violated the city charter when they issued checks without the signature of Mayor Richard Thomas.

But the July 7 decision also dismissed several claims by Thomas and counterclaims by the elected officials. In essence, the judge said, everyone ought to start playing nice.

“The papers submitted by the parties in this matter reflect an unfortunate breakdown in the normal and necessary interaction between the executive and legislative branches of government,” Acting Supreme Court Justice Robert A. Neary wrote.

“The type of interaction which is essential for the proper and effective operation of city government is clearly lacking here. The court is being asked, in several instances, to assign blame and to direct procedures which should properly be managed by the parties themselves.”

Thomas sued in March, not long after he had become mayor, claiming that Maureen Walker, the comptroller, and Marcus Griffith, city council president, had been bypassing his authority to review and sign vendor checks.

Neary directed Griffith and Walker to stop issuing checks without the mayor’s signature.

Their actions, he said, reflect an “attempt to usurp the mayor’s authority and cannot be justified by any reasonable reading of the city charter.”

Thomas also made accusations against other city council members, the city clerk and a vendor, Creative Direction Construction & Design, owned by council member Andre Wallace.

Neary rejected all of these claims, as well as several counterclaims by the defendants.

For instance, Thomas singled out Wallace and his construction company, arguing that work had been performed improperly, a contract had expired and Wallace, as an elected official, had a conflict of interest in trying to extend the contract.

The city hired the construction company in 2014, before Wallace was elected to council, to build an emergency operations center in the Third Street Firehouse for $930,000.

The project floundered, and after Wallace was elected to council he sued the city for $236,339 for breach of contract.

Neary ruled that Thomas failed to establish an impermissible conflict of interest.

The gist of the decision is that the city charter clearly defines the roles of everyone involved in the disputes and provides all the guidance required. Furthermore, certain issues are best determined by the political branches of government, not by the judicial branch.

Generally, the management and operation of municipal services “should not be preempted by the judiciary,” Neary wrote, “but left in control of duly elected officials.”

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About the author

Bill Heltzel
Bill Heltzel has covered criminal justice, courts, government and sports – as a beat reporter and investigative reporter – for daily newspapers in Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He worked for Bloomberg LP in training and sales. He joined The Business Journal in 2016.
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