Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Sun Valley mayor tries to reassure public

Legal bills go over budget as city tries to regain footing


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

Dewayne Briscoe

As Sun Valley's interim executive assistant settles in and the threat of legal action by a former city administrator fades, Sun Valley officials are hoping the recent tumultuous period is behind them. Not everyone, however, is confident about the city's direction or happy about its legal expenditures.

During a City Council meeting on Thursday, Feb. 16, Mayor Dewayne Briscoe tried to reassure the public that he has a handle on internal matters that have rocked City Hall in the past few months.

"We are trying to resolve these [issues] as much as we can and as quickly as we can, and put them behind us," he said.

The city budgeted $60,000 for legal expenses this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. So far, it has spent that amount defending itself against three lawsuits brought by former City Administrator Sharon Hammer and her attorney and husband, Jim Donoval.

Included in the sum is about $6,000 for an attorney to help negotiate a new franchise agreement with Cox Communications.

Former Sun Valley Mayor Dave Wilson expressed anger about the city's legal bills and what he said was a lack of adequate planning for legal expenses.

"Money's going out the window and nobody's in charge here," he said.

Briscoe, who defeated former Mayor Wayne Willich in the November election, said he can only be held accountable for what happened after he took office.

"I'm responsible for the administrative affairs of the city after Jan. 4," he said. "We have brought the city to order. We are bringing changes to the city. I'm not responsible for the spending by the former mayor prior to when I took office. We are left with the legal bills the former mayor ran up."

"You were a city councilman," Wilson countered. "The City Council has more power over the budget than the mayor. The City Council has more control over spending than the mayor. Don't pass the buck. Fix it."

In Hammer's suit against the city and three other defendants, she claimed that Councilman Nils Ribi harassed her and that the city failed to protect her. She dropped the suit last month but retained the right to refile.

Hammer also has an active suit against the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, the city's insurance carrier. In the suit, she maintains that the organization should provide her legal assistance and should not have provided legal counsel to defendants in her original suit because the city's policy with ICRMP excludes claims relating to harassment, employment or disciplinary action.

In a separate but related suit, Donoval has taken legal action against the city to obtain records.

"We have current problems—we have lawsuits against us that we're having to defend," Briscoe said. "If you individually were being sued for a million dollars and sued for records and sued for your insurance company to not defend you, you would have had to put down probably a $50,000 deposit to get a firm to retain."

Briscoe told the Idaho Mountain Express that the city can expect a few more legal bills related to the Hammer suits for attorney fees.

Another $26,000 was spent late last year on an independent investigator who looked into internal issues at City Hall. Briscoe said that amount may be taken out of legal expenses, another line item in the budget or the city's contingency fund. He said the contingency fund contains about $50,000.

He said the council likely will set a special meeting to discuss those budget items.

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In an interview, Wilson said the city should be able to address its issues internally, without the expense of outside counsel.

"It could be resolved by the mayor and council easily," he said. "I think the citizens are truly concerned. I want [city officials] to address these issues. I don't think they're addressing them."

City awaits investigation's conclusion

Briscoe said the city must wait for a determination by the Idaho Attorney General's Office before it can make final decisions on internal matters.

A spokesman for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden declined last week to confirm the visit of investigators, but Briscoe said they would be in Sun Valley conducting interviews this week.

Briscoe said two reports were forwarded to the Blaine County Prosecutor's Office, which forwarded them to the attorney general: an annual independent financial audit and a report compiled by an independent investigative attorney, who was hired by the city during Willich's administration, to look into undisclosed internal matters.

"Following the initial investigation, other so-called whistle blowers within the city came forward with other allegations of problems within the city," Briscoe said.

He, as then-council president, and Willich gave the investigator authority to continue her work. From that investigation came additional "indications of sufficient irregularities," he said.

What those irregularities are remains undisclosed.

"The report is confidential for two reasons," Briscoe said. "One is because the investigator insisted that anyone that came forward with information to the city would be protected and that the results of the report would not be released. The investigator told us that is the only way to conduct a proper investigation—if people are assured of their privacy and confidentiality. This is why the report has not been released and will not be released."

Council members offer perspectives

City Councilman Franz Suhadolnik said Thursday that he was troubled by the turmoil at City Hall, as well as perplexed by it.

"I've been trying to figure out ... why this city is constantly in a state of flux and disarray," he said. "We're a city without a crime problem, we have no racial strife and we've got a lot of money. But we continually have these problems."

Part of the problem, he said, is that most mayors in the recent past have not been re-elected.

"We've had one mayor that has not been a one-term mayor," he said. "That's very unusual for a city to just have a one-term mayor. Usually, mayors get two terms."

In addition, he said, several recent city administrators were paid to leave before their contracts expired.

"I think that's unusual, too," he said. "I can't figure out what goes on here that causes that. This should be a city that is level and straight and with very little problems. The problems might be with you folks out there for electing who you elect. You need to think about that."

Ribi, who has been on the council for six years, said he is as optimistic about Sun Valley's future as he's ever been. He cited the combination of council members, Briscoe as mayor and Virginia Egger, the interim executive assistant to the mayor, as reasons for his positive outlook.

"This is probably a real critical time for us to have the combination of folks running the city," he said. "I feel really good about it."

Rebecca Meany: rmeany@mtexpress.com




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