NORTON: Decisions made this week will have profound effects on the city for years to come but the costs and consequences remain in doubt.
On Monday, City Council held a strident, three-hour session that produced a major step toward starting the $8 million Nash Heights sewer project, with the hiring of outgoing Administrator Rick Ryland as a consultant/contractor and a deal to compensate Mayor Mike Zita for temporarily taking Ryland’s duties.
Hours later voters went to the polls and elected four new councilmen who have been critical of the sewer project and the city administration.
Council’s action authorized Zita to sign a deal with the EPA to commit to the controversial sewer project that gives the city two years to complete the work. A previous arrangement gave the city one year to finish, which Zita and some council members felt was too short to avoid costly hurry-up construction costs.
Ward 1 Councilman Todd Bergstrom said the longer schedule gives residents more time to prepare for the cost, which was the subject of bitter complaints from residents at recent meetings, including Monday night.
Councilwoman-at-large Charlotte Whipkey criticized the deal, in part because it failed to keep a promise by council to give time for residents to pursue a referendum opposing the project. She repeatedly pressed Bergstrom to acknowledge that the promise was being broken. He finally agreed but said a referendum could not overturn the deal because the EPA was forcing the action under threat of penalties. Delay, he said, would bring additional cost.
The measure passed 5-1 with Whipkey voting no. Ward 3 Councilman Bill Mowery, whose district includes Nash Heights, was not present.
Mowery, Ward 2 Councilman and Council President Don Nicolard and Ward 4’s John Conklin all lost re-election bids on Tuesday. Bergstrom chose not to run again.
Rick Rodgers was elected in Ward 1, Danny Grether defeated Nicolard in Ward 2, Dennis G. Pierson defeated Mowery in Ward 3 and Paul Tousley defeated Conklin.
Changing or stopping the sewer project when the new council takes over in January could be difficult.
The contract with the EPA that was approved Monday night says, “No change in the composition of [the city] shall in any way alter [the city’s] obligations under these orders.”
Pierson said the EPA contract means the sewer project will come to his ward and can’t be stopped. “It’s going forward and they just screwed us,” he said.
Pierson said he will urge the four departing councilmen to resign now so the changes don’t have to wait until January.
Ryland is resigning effective Friday and plans to move to Florida. He was not present Monday night.
The consulting contract, negotiated by Zita and Finance Director Laura Starosta, calls for Ryland to be paid $2,290 for the first day he is recalled from Florida to work for the city, particularly to participate in any of four pending lawsuits for which he could be a witness.
A second or any additional day would pay him $1,840 each, so a two-day return would result in a $4,130 payment. If his payments exceed $25,000, Zita would be required to return to council for an additional contract.
Council, led by questions from Whipkey, insisted on adding a provision saying the city would not pay for any additional travel costs for Ryland.
The city charter calls for Zita to take over Ryland’s duties. The mayor is a part-time employee who is paid $11,250 a year. Zita also is an hourly employee at Norton’s Acme grocery store.
An ordinance passed Monday night calls for Zita to be paid a biweekly salary of $1,904 as he holds the two positions.
Zita assured the council he will devote sufficient time for the city’s needs but would not take a leave of absence from the grocery job.
Bergstrom said the jobs might strain the mayor more than he expects and forced him to promise to ask for help if needed.
Zita is seeking candidates for a permanent administrator, and council put discussion of the new administrator’s salary on its agenda in coming weeks. Ryland was paid about $60,000.
Council members said a raise is likely. President Don Nicolard said he hypothetically asked each council member if he or she would take the challenging administrator’s job for $60,000 and they all said no.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.