Houston City Hall
Credit: HOUSTON HERALD FILE PHOTO

Houston Mayor Willy Walker vetoed two measures Monday that were approved last week by the Houston City Council in a special meeting. Both were overridden by a required two-thirds majority of the council, who later fired City Administrator Scott Avery.

Walker also charged that wrong-doing has occurred related to a long-time retirement program that  allows council members who become vested to receive benefits. The matter first came up in January as part of a discussion on health insurance benefits that had been received by the mayor. He wants an outside attorney to review the retirement matter, and a majority of the council has declined.

The first veto concerned the approval of Bill 106, which was approved last week. It allows two-thirds of the council — four members — to fire the city administrator. The veto message from the mayor reads, “Does not match the hiring process section 2-83. This bill gives the alderman the authority to remove the administrator by 2/3 votes independent without cause, which sets the city up for monetary liability. It is becoming more apparent a rolling quorum has been established with the board of alderman, this violates open meeting laws.”

On a 4-2 vote, it was overridden. (Yes: Kevin Stilley, Sheila Walker, Don Romines and Angie Gettys; no votes from Sam Kelley and Michael Weakly).

The mayor said he saw no conflict between the previous existing ordinance and state statute and called the change “malice intent.”

The other matter added “elective” before “officers” related to suspension of city officials — in Section 2-50 (c). The mayor’s veto reads, “I will not be signing bill 105 due to the process of personal agenda of one alderman Don Romines. Only the board, not an alderman, may give instruction orders to an employee member (city attorney).” It was overridden by the same 4-2 council majority.

Romines initiated the discussion with City Attorney Brad Eidson, who prepared the changes after agreeing that there were inconsistencies on the city books compared to state statutes and eventually those were considered in the special meeting. Walker said Romines initiated the moves without the council discussing it. Eidson said he provides advice to any council member who requests it. He also acts as prosecutor in municipal court.

The contentious meeting also brought debate on the timetable when the council could override a mayoral veto — specifically what constituted a “next meeting” of the council. Eidson and the mayor tangled on when the vote should occur. Later, the mayor said he would not be reappointing Edison as attorney, who has served in the post since July 2003, and rather leave the position open. A motion to remove Edison failed – 4-2. (Yes from Weakly and Kelley)

Scott Avery

Discussion followed on the retirement issue — ultimately the council decided to have a representative from the Missouri Local Government Employer Retirement System appear at a board meeting to answer any questions. Previously, Avery reported he had found no paperwork authorizing the payments. The disbursements to the program amount to about $154 per month.

The mayor says an outside party needs to look at all the issues, raised questions about whether some had enriched themselves and said “foul play” had occurred.

The council turned to personnel matters in a closed meeting following its regular meeting and fired Avery, who assumed the position in the fall of 2019. The vote was 4-2 (Kelley and Weakly no).

In other matters, the council:

•Approved renewal of the city’s health insurance benefits package with Connell Insurance, a Springfield company that has held the city’s business since 2019. Chase Marable with the firm outlined its proposal, which will increase about 25.82 percent annually from last year. Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield through a Missouri Chamber of Commerce program had the best pricing.

The cost per employee will increase June 1 from about $450 to $566 monthly. Marable said a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation puts the average cost of the coverage in the country at $598 per month. The increase represents about a $96,000 annual increase to the city, which pays for employees and dependents. In the previous two years since moving to Connell, Marable said the city had saved about $167,000 in reduced premiums. The new coverage starts June 1.

The jump in the city’s premium was influenced by a high claims utilization, Marable said.

•Okayed the availability of alcohol at a CASA fund-raiser set for June 24-25 at Houston Municipal Golf Course. (5-1 with Alderwoman Walker voting no)

•Heard that a representative of a 13-community electrical buying consortium will attend the council’s June 20 meeting to brief the council. Houston is among the towns that works with the Missouri Public Utility Alliance to provide wholesale electricity to it. Houston has two years left on its current contract.

•Authorized the purchase of grounding rods that will protect the wastewater treatment plant from potential electrical damage. The $28,000 expenditure was about $4,000 below budget.  

•Tabled the every two-year process related to financial disclosure required by municipalities in the state. Eidson will update the ordinance for consideration at the next meeting.

•Approved policies and procedures highlighted in manuals for the police and fire departments.

•Heard Avery update the city’s most recent sales tax reports from the Missouri Department of Revenue.

•Learned that two firms out of four contacted were interested in giving a bid for asphalt paving in the city.

•Approved reappointing the city municipal judge Conway Hawn for a two-year term.

•Heard the mayor outline a section that he said deals with the interference by the board of alderman with the city workforce. The discussion was pointed at Romines, who wondered out loud whether the edict extended to such things as telling an employee about a leaning utility pole.

•Heard from Charlie Shea, a member of the Houston Planning and Zoning Commission, who gave a primer on the responsibilities and conduct of the council and mayor. Shea suggested each side lay out their agendas on the table and ‘move on.”

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