Communication breakdown: How the relationship between Zionsville’s mayor and town council ‘soured’ and whether it can be salvaged

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In the nearly two years since the last town election, the Zionsville Town Council and Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron have disagreed on numerous issues, and some residents are displeased with the two parties’ “soured” relationship and lack of communication.

Zionsville Council President Josh Garrett

The partnership initially started as a collaborative effort, with council member Bryan Traylor shaking Styron’s hand and saying the two parties looked forward to working together during her first State of the Town address at the beginning of 2020, despite the council consisting of all Republicans and Styron being the town’s first Democratic mayor. In Styron’s first six months, the partnership got off to a productive start. She and the council worked together on several items, including the approval of a new financial system, a reorganization of the town’s department of public works and a new parks department head.

But Traylor’s sentiments, and many of the other council members’ sentiments, have since changed. During the council’s Sept. 7 meeting, Traylor said the mayor “works around us, not with us.”

In the last year, several council members have voiced displeasure with many of Styron’s decisions. For example, during the Sept. 7 meeting, councilors questioned why they haven’t seen any financial data for the calendar year, including revenues and expenses for the town’s 2021 annual budget, while also being asked to vote on additional appropriations and why the mayor directed traffic tickets to be sent to the county court instead of the town’s court.

Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron

But Styron and Council President Josh Garrett do agree on one thing: Their communication breakdown has not been because of their differing political parties, with Garrett labeling the characterization as a “weak argument.”

“You hear the same argument, ‘Well, she’s a woman, and (they are) seven men,’” Garrett said. “The fact that she is a Democrat has nothing to do with our opposition. It is how she is operating, communication styles and (the) lack of information that we are getting. If she was a white male Republican, we would have the exact same problems if this is how that individual was operating.”

Styron said she is not meeting resistance from councilors because of party affiliations.

“I’m not hearing anything from them that says, ‘The reason I’m frustrated is because you are a Democrat,’” Styron said. “I think that, for our community, any kind of differences we may hold are about the operations and some of the activities. It’s not around Republicans or Democrats.”

How the relationship “soured”

The two parties first came at odds last year when Styron requested the town council demote Zionsville Fire Dept. Chief James VanGorder because of alleged job performance issues, Styron and Garrett said. The council did not find sufficient evidence to justify the demotion and unanimously voted to deny her request. 

In response, Styron sued the council. In the suit, Styron requested a judge determine whether the town’s mayor has the authority to demote department heads without council approval. Boone County Judge Matthew Kincaid ruled the mayor does not have the authority, but Styron appealed the decision in July. Garrett said a ruling on the appeal is not expected until late this year or early 2022.

Styron also had placed VanGorder on temporary leave and reassigned him duties not typical of the town’s fire chief, which town councilors claim was equivalent to a demotion. VanGorder filed a counterclaim for injunctive relief but withdrew it June 18 following Kincaid’s decision and after Styron said VanGorder’s traditional duties as fire chief had been restored.

“My decision to seek a declaratory judgement as it relates to the mayor’s ability to demote or revert a department head back to their original rank has put a strain on my relationship with council leadership,” Styron said.

“That’s when this relationship soured, and (it) has not recovered,” Garrett affirmed.

Philosophical differences

Styron and Garrett said the lawsuit affected communication between the mayor and the council, and they now speak approximately twice a month, ahead of council meetings, according to Garrett. However, the two parties have voiced their disagreements on social media, and council members have publicly questioned the mayor’s decisions during meetings, causing frustration for some residents who have accused both sides of not being cooperative or questioned what keeps them from talking more in person.

“I have a hard time with the fact that the town council and the mayor apparently were doing their job, and the town council did their job, and the mayor didn’t like it or didn’t get the answers she wanted, so she decided to step over them and kind of create her own rules and regulations,” longtime Zionsville resident Donna Belcher said, referring to the suit. “I just have a hard time that they just can’t agree, and it’s not one-sided. I know that.”

Ron Hopwood, co-owner of Hopwood Cellars Winery and William Rose Distillery in Zionsville, said the mayor, town council and community would benefit if the two parties’ communication improved.

“Social media is not the place,” Hopwood said. “It needs to be face to face.”

The town established the mayoral office during its 2014 reorganization. The first two mayors — Jeff Papa and Tim Haak — served on the town council prior to assuming the town’s executive position, making Styron the first to have not served on the council prior to becoming mayor. Before being elected, she moved to Zionsville in 2000 and previously worked as the chief financial officer for the Indianapolis Dept. of Public Safety, the deputy director of Indy Parks and the chief information officer for the Information Services Agency for the City of Indianapolis and Marion County.

“I think we have a situation where the mayor wants to fully identify and understand the role that this position plays in town governance, and I think that as that determination is happening it can create a reaction from the other elected officials that govern our community, and there is some frustration over that, for sure,” Styron said.

Citing Kincaid’s decision, Garrett said the mayor’s role is clearly defined by the reorganization and that Styron is being confronted with the differences between Zionsville’s unique government (it is one of only two Indiana towns with a mayor) and other municipalities that have a mayor, such as Indianapolis.

“She comes from a background of working in Indianapolis, which is a city with a mayor, and the mayor has more authority,” Garrett said. “She is now the mayor of a town that is governed by a reorganization that does not have the same powers as the mayor of Indianapolis. She seems to act at times as if she has the same powers of the mayor of Indianapolis. This is our seventh year of having a mayor. We didn’t have any of these other issues with the other mayors. This is her, I think, trying to bypass what the voters voted on and turn us into Indianapolis, and that’s not what the voters wanted, and that’s not what I want, and that’s why you are seeing so much pushback from this council.

“This is not Indianapolis; this is Zionsville.”

Recent disputes

Although the relationship between Styron and the council “soured” over the lawsuit, the two parties have disagreed on other issues.

“It’s not just the lawsuit,” Garrett said. “It is one thing to file a lawsuit for something you think is ambiguous. This is not just sour grapes over a lawsuit she filed against us. We are not going to hold a grudge against her for the remainder of her current term because of (it). But there are repeated things that seem to keep happening that bypass the council, whether it is updates, whether it is things we legally have the right and authority over. At some point, that pattern becomes not just a mistake or a one-off. It becomes an operating style.”

During the council’s Sept. 7 meeting, council members said they had not seen the town’s financial information for the entire calendar year, including 2021 revenues and expenses. The town is in the process of installing new software that handles its finances, which is expected to provide more detail for officials and residents, but councilors said the switch has kept them from being able to make prudent financial decisions because the town’s old software was not maintained, thus preventing the council from accessing the information.

Zionsville Chief Financial Officer Tammy Havard told council members they would receive the town’s annual financial reports when the new software is operational, but councilors were dismayed that the mayor’s administration had not explored ways of preventing the situation.

“This is the most frustrating thing (for) the council,” Garrett said. “We have no financial information. I can’t tell you how much we have spent, how much we’ve spent to budget, what our revenues look like. New appropriations come in, and we are told we can afford it, but we don’t know because we are unable to see the data. As the fiscal body for the town, it is unnerving that we don’t have this information.”

Styron and Havard said the town was unable to simultaneously maintain two software systems because its finance department is short staffed and trying to fill multiple positions.

“I do appreciate the town council’s frustration,” Styron said. “There is a gap, currently, in terms of being able to transition all of the financial software to this new system at the same time that we are changing banks. So, there is a bank reconciliation process that is under way that has delayed getting the typical financial information to the council. Tammy is working to get that situation remedied. One of the advantages of the new system that we are moving to is that it will be something that offers more transparency to council and citizens, where they’ll be able to look at a website and see more details about the town’s finances than we’ve ever had before. We are all frustrated at the length of time that it has taken to get to the final finish line, but when we do get there, it will be a really strong win for us.”

Besides the finances issue, council members expressed frustration after being told Styron had directed the Zionsville Police Dept. to send traffic tickets to the county court instead of the town court. The town court administrator position, which Styron said is needed to help the town court adjudicate tickets, had been vacant for nearly two months, councilors were told by Town Judge Samantha Spencer.

Prior to the directive, tickets were sent to the town court as a way of preventing a backlog of cases at the county court. Council members questioned why the position was posted hours before the Sept. 7 meeting and why they and Spencer were not informed of the change. Spencer said she was informed of the change not long before the council’s Sept. 7 meeting, where she then informed council members. Styron said the position is advertised and that the town plans to continue to have tickets sent to the county court until it is filled, but the council’s legal counsel believes change might violate town ordinances outlining the town’s procedures for such matters. Styron said she isn’t aware of such an ordinance. 

 Town council legal counsel Heather Willey said the town court was established by a 2005 ordinance.

“There is some evidence and some history that it has all been directed to the town court for a variety of reasons,” Willey said during the Sept. 7 meeting. “And only the town council can make a decision of whether to abolish the court or establish the court. So, really, it’s in the town council’s purview to set that structure in place.”

Moving forward?

In recent weeks, Styron has reflected on the state of her relationship with the council and hopes to “resume more periodic 1-on-1 conversations” with council members.

“I hope we can get to a place where we are focusing more on what we have in common than where we disagree,” Styron said. “I understand I have a role to play in that in terms of actively seeking out conversations with individual town councilors and looking for those areas where we agree and focusing (on) those areas.”

But Garrett said it will take more than optimistic feelings to salvage the relationship.

“It will take action to recover, not words,” Garrett said. “We can all say we’re all going to get along, but the actions that support that is what I’m looking for. How are we (going to work) together? And the budget is going to be a great example.”

The town is approaching budget season.

“We should be further along than we are, and there is an expectation that there will be a lot more detail than what has been provided so far to us. If that detail is there, and we are able to have reasonable conversations about that detail and how that money is appropriated, I’d see that as being a productive session. If we get pushback that we have gotten initially, you’re going to see a different budget process. We are certainly willing to work with anyone, but they have to be willing to work with us. It’s something I certainly hope gets better. I hope we are able to work together.

“I wouldn’t say I’m optimistic based on what I’ve seen to date, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to not make an effort going forward, as well.”


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