Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron and the town council have voiced public disagreement about the handling of boards with disciplinary powers with regard to the town’s police and fire departments.
The Zionsville Town Council unanimously voted during an Oct. 19 meeting to uphold Styron’s veto of two ordinances to establish safety boards for fire and police matters. Styron said at the meeting that the move prevented litigation between the council and the mayor’s administration.
Styron said there were “numerous legal concerns” within the ordinances and urged the council to find common legal ground before voting to codify the ordinances. Specifically, she lamented the possible inclusion of town council member appointments to the boards, the council’s ability to appoint members to the boards and the council’s insistence that it be consulted before a department chief is demoted.
Styron said that she approached council President Josh Garrett and Vice President Bryan Traylor concerning a department head’s actions. Town officials would not identify the department head. According to Garrett, Styron recommended the department head be demoted.
Garrett said council leadership advised her to follow the town’s process for demotion, which he said has “long existed.” Garrett said he and Traylor found the situation “alarming,” and Garrett said the two found it “odd” the mayor, a Democrat, suggested demoting the department head and not terminating them given the number of accusations and “the scope of (the) unsubstantiated claims against this individual.” He said the council, composed of all Republicans, was assured evidence against the individual existed but that it was never given access to view it in person after multiple requests.
In a five-page veto memorandum sent to the council, Styron’s administration researched the historical formation of the town’s board of police commissioners and safety board, which have disciplinary powers in such matters. She then recommended the town reconstitute the boards after her administration failed to find how or when the safety board was formed and only found what she called an “uncodified ordinance” establishing a board of police commissioners in 2008. The safety board is composed of three town council members: Jason Plunkett, Alexander Choi and Traylor. Three of the five members of the board of police commissioners are town council members.
“The mayor’s approach with the safety board has been improperly constituted, and while we disagreed, we went about reconstituting it as a courtesy to her concerns,” Garrett said during the meeting.
The disagreement, in part, stems from the town’s structure. Typically, only Indiana cities have mayors, but Zionsville is an exception. The town created a mayoral position during its reorganization in 2014, when the town merged with Perry Township, according to Reorganization Resolution 2014-11, which outlined the merger and the structure of the reorganized town.
Styron stated she was concerned by a provision in the ordinances that allowed controlling seats on the boards to be filled by town council members, calling the notion atypical, a conflict of interest and a method of absorbing executive privileges. Styron stated the authority to make appointments to the boards rests with the mayor, and, in her veto memorandum, stated Indiana Code 36-4-9-6 supports her assertion, though the code grants the privilege to city executives with no mention of town executives.
The town’s reorganization resolution states, under general provision ZR2A8, that “all rights and responsibilities assigned by Indiana law to the town executive or town council president in his or her executive capacity are transferred to, and are rights and responsibilities of, the mayor. Powers include the ability to appoint members to and remove from boards, utilities and commissions, which were the power of the town council president prior to this reorganization.” The resolution, under general provision ZR2A12, also states that provisions of the 2014 reorganization resolution “control over state law and any conflicting item in the 2010 reorganization.”
Styron stated the mayor and town council should share the authority to appoint board members due to the town’s structure. She advocated that boards be composed of citizen members, saying council members and town officials shouldn’t serve on the boards in the interest of independent oversight.
The council, after receiving Styron’s veto memorandum and redlined versions of the ordinances with her suggestions, had a vote Oct. 19 on final drafts that still had provisions granting the council the power to appoint its members to the boards – up to three council members to each board. Barnes & Thornburg attorney Heather Willey, who advises the council, said town council member appointments to safety boards are common in other municipalities. Garrett said the ordinances were meant to clarify existing ordinances, did not grant new powers to the town council and shifted some powers to the mayor to better align the ordinances with the reorganization resolution.
On the question of whether the mayor must consult the council before demoting a department chief, the reorganization resolution, under general provision ZR2A24, states, “The mayor must have the approval of a majority of town council before the executive may discharge a department head” (with exception to the parks department head). Styron stated that Indiana case law allows the town’s mayor to demote a department head. The reorganization resolution makes no mention of demoting department heads. She asked the council to include such language in the ordinances.
But Garrett objected.
“While the reorganization is silent on the demotion in the rank of a police or fire chief, after conversations with the founders of the reorganization, we understand that the spirit of the provision was to require council approval before demoting the police or fire chief from their position as department head.,” Garrett said. “A demotion of a police or fire chief from his or her position is effectively removing him or her as a department head.”
Garrett said consulting the council creates “a nonpolitical prosecution” and gives the accused a chance to defend themselves against unilateral action.
During the meeting, Styron said that if the town council did not vote to uphold her veto of the ordinances, they would leave her no choice but to pursue litigation, which she said would needlessly cost taxpayer dollars.
Yet by allowing Styron’s veto to stand, the police commissioners board and safety board revert to the way they operated prior to the introduction of the vetoed ordinances, Willey said, leaving council members on the board of police commissioners and safety board. But Styron said the town still must legally codify an ordinance for a safety board.
“I am grateful (for) the town council’s willingness to work collaboratively on these ordinances and on future matters,” Styron stated. “I look forward to future discussions.”
Residents who spoke at the meeting urged the council not to absorb any executive powers that they said should be held by the mayor. Garrett lambasted accusations, along with any suggestions of misogyny (all town council members are men), saying the town council has worked with Styron to pass a number of measures she campaigned on in 2019, and that the two parties, until recently, had yet to disagree on anything.
Styron and the council had worked together to approve the hiring of the town’s new CFO, Tammy Havard, and passed multiple economic development projects, both of which were agenda items of Styron’s election campaign. Both parties had repeatedly touted their collaborative working relationship.
Choi said members of both parties spoke late into the night prior to the early-morning meeting that they had an amicable discussion about “next steps to build the relationships back up again.” He said the framers of the reorganization resolution couldn’t account for every possibility, saying, of no particular fault of the mayor or the council, the town had found itself clarifying the resolution’s gray areas.