FOREST PARK — Members of the Forest Park Ethics Board threw out complaints targeting the mayor and three members of city council, during a heated debate that led one member to walk out in resignation.
The discussion Wednesday grew so contentious that members withdrew behind closed doors to continue in executive session. About 40 minutes later, member Skip Cain walked out, said, “Night, night,” and left City Hall.
City Attorney Mike Williams, who was in the secret session with the board, announced later that Cain resigned.
Mayor David Lockhart, who was targeted in both complaints, said he was pleased with the outcome.
“I am pleased that the Board found no basis to pursue Mr. Gippert’s ethics complaints against the mayor and council,” he said in an emailed statement. “Combined with the lack of any substance to the complaints was the timing Gippert chose. It was clear from the beginning that the complaints were politically motivated and submitted to further his own candidacy. I am grateful for the thorough work of the Board that led them to the right decision.”
Gippert said he will appeal and took issue with Lockhart’s assessment of his intentions.
“This was not for political reasons as I did not decide to run for mayor until he (Lockhart) filed his frivolous lawsuit against myself and the two other residents who were only upset with the fact he wanted me fired,” said Gippert.
Gippert is challenging Lockhart for mayor in November, as is former Mayor Pro Tem Sparkle Adams, who is not part of the complaint.
City Attorney Michael Williams helped guide the meeting and told the board that his firm’s position was that all the violations should be dismissed.
From the beginning of the meeting it seemed four members — Lockhart supporter Chair Pat Cooper, Vice-Chair Lois Wright, Denise and Annie Malone — were in favor of dismissal. Cain, who is Gippert’s landlord, was in favor of a discussion and possible investigation to get more information.
They first discussed an email sent April 25 from Lockhart to an employee. He was mayor-elect but Forest Park hadn’t had a sitting mayor since Corine Deyton retired months ago. He took the oath of office in private May 1.
“This happened in April and he hadn’t taken office yet,” said Malone.
Cain saw it another way.
“Why did he send it if he didn’t want someone to take notice of it?” he said. “This email, if he was not mayor, was sent from City Hall. If he wasn’t mayor, why was he using city email?”
Cooper interrupted Cain and seemed to admonish him.
“Let’s deal with the ethics complaint,” she said.
Williams told them that a disclaimer Lockhart includes at the end of each email could protect him from scrutiny.
“‘Notwithstanding whether any communication from this office may be interpreted otherwise, David N. Lockhart does not publicly or privately give orders to any officer, department head or employee of the City of Forest Park,’” Williams read. “‘Any interpretation of any communication from this office which is inconsistent with the foregoing is incorrect.’”
He told them that the disclaimer could countermand whatever Lockhart writes in an email.
“If you are satisfied with that, you have sufficient grounds to dismiss,” said Williams. “If not, you can bring in folks to testify.”
Almost three years ago, Ward 1 Councilwoman Karen-Brandee Williams was removed from office after a hearing officer confirmed 15 of 25 violations filed against her. At least one of those violations involved giving orders to city employees.
At the meeting, Cain said he wanted the complaint examined.
“I don’t understand any part of this email being OK,” he said. “I think we have to kick it up to a hearing officer.”
“If he was not mayor, he can’t be held accountable yet,” she said. “It’s a moot point until he’s officially elected.”
The board voted 4-1 to dismiss the violation, with Cain opposing.
The second violation also concerned an alleged order given to Lockhart to Executive Administrative Assistant Jan Young, sometime in May or June, the date is not specific.
“You can’t go around the city manager to order that,” said Cain.
Wright said Young could answer the question and wondered if they could bring her in.
In the middle of the discussion, Cooper brought up Cain’s recusal from the board because he is Gippert’s landlord. Cain countered that he can be objective.
“I think I can render an ethical decision,” he said. “I’m a pretty ethical guy. Patty (Cooper) campaigns for the mayor, has signs in her yard. Y’all have a problem with that?”
The other women shook their heads and murmured, “No.”
Williams said Cain would have to recuse himself, that there is no provision for the other members to force him out.
“We’re all adults here and should be able to decide,” said Malone.
“There you go, game on,” said Cain.
Back to the violation, Cain repeated that in order to hear from witnesses, there needs to be a hearing.
“That’s why we need to kick it up to a hearing officer,” he said. “Because we weren’t there. Let a hearing officer hear from these people.”
The meeting then took another turn when Cain brought up the recommendations for dismissal from the city attorneys.
“Mayor and council hired these attorneys,” he said. “This thing written is biased and not a true accounting of what is being answered to. If he ordered a job to be advertised, that breaks the chain of command. Only two people can tell us. It’s easy enough, ask them. Are you going to just not pay attention?”
“To me, they should all be dismissed,” she said.
Cain repeated that a hearing was in order.
“Maybe that’s why they asked us to recuse you because they knew,” said Malone.
“That I’d disagree?” said Cain.
“Yes,” she said.
The women again pointed to Lockhart’s email disclaimer and his position as a lawyer.
“There are rules to be followed,” Cain said. “You don’t know the rules were followed. You can’t sweep this under the rug and say that he’s a lawyer so it must be OK.”
At this point, the members asked Williams about going into executive session.
“Let’s get to the nitty gritty,” said Wright. “I think we need to go into executive session to put it on the table to see what it’s really all about.”
Cain opposed continuing the discussion in secret but was out-voted. About 40 minutes later, he emerged, said good-night and left. Cain couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about his resignation.
The women, again guided by Williams, voted unanimously to dismiss the rest of the violations. At one point, when Cooper asked if there was anyone opposed, Wright pointed to Cain’s empty chair and said, “Well, he’s gone,” and laughed.
Mayor Pro Tem Linda Lord sat through the meeting, as did three other residents and Gippert. Lord was the only council member not targeted in the complaints. There was no public comment portion.
However, after the adjournment, Lord gave the members some advice.
“Those of you with campaign signs in your yard, you need to be careful,” she said. “You’re on the Ethics Board now. You should be considered unbiased. You are in a unique position now.”
Gippert said after the meeting he was appalled.
“It was a like a kangaroo court,” he said in a written statement. “The job of the Ethics Board was not to determine whether the Mayor and Council was guilty or not guilty but to determine if any of the complaints were indeed Ethics violations and if so, which they all were, decide on a hearing date with the option to request an independent hearing officer and panel which, in turn takes out the political motivations.”
Gippert also disagreed with the city attorneys’ recommendation.
“The analysis of the City Attorney was basically unethical and politically biased in itself,” he said.