Chris Jones: Green Publishing, Inc.
Things have gone from bad to worse for the Greenville Town Council. Months of internal squabbling, contradiction, and discontent have obstructed the local government body from doing much at all for the residents they were elected to represent. The underlying issue has been absences, what constitutes an excuse of such absence, and whether or not those absences warrant a council member losing their position, as dictated by the town charter. At last month's meeting, the Town Attorney, Town Manager, and Town Grants Consultant all submitted their resignations. To complicate matters, the Town Council has ignored the opinion of the former Town Attorney, and seemingly reversed its position on the status of a recently vacated council seat. Uncouth conduct that some have called harassment has saturated monthly meetings with a stench of incivility, with council members directing rude comments and derogatory tones toward each other, the Town Clerk, and Greenville citizens.
At the regularly scheduled town council meeting on Monday, July 10, Mayor Calvin Malone reversed his position concerning the vacancy of Kovacherich Arnold, who, according to the opinion of Town Attorney Clay Schnitker, forfeited his seat in October of 2016. This opinion was reinforced by the council itself at a special session meeting on Monday, June 19, when Vice-Mayor Brandi Seabrooks offered a motion to re-appoint Arnold to the vacant seat. The action ended in a tie, with Vice-Mayor Seabrooks and Mayor Malone voting in favor of the motion, and council members Collins and Dansey voting against it. A motion to appoint Arnold, or anyone else, to the vacant seat, insinuated that the seat was, in fact, vacant. Mayor Malone echoed that sentiment during the special meeting, when he said “We just officially made it vacant,” and on Thursday, June 22, he sent an official letter to Arnold, stating “I am sad to inform you that you were not reappointed to the vacant seat and are no longer a member of the Town of Greenville's Town Council.”
Just one day later though, on Friday, June 23, Mayor Malone sent another official letter to Arnold, retracting the previous communication. It read “It is my opinion that my last letter is not valid and I would like to resend (sic) the last letter and allow the Council and the court system make the determination on the issue of your seat.” Mayor Malone continued his backpedaling at the July 10 meeting, saying “Until I've gotten something from a judge or the Governor as far as the seat being vacant, the seat is not vacant.” Council member Collins attempted to rebut Mayor Malone, citing the special session's vote on the vacant seat, to which he replied “Its not that simple, Mrs. Collins. Trust me; its not that simple.”
Currently, Council Members Collins and Dansey firmly believe that Arnold's seat is vacant. The Town Attorney also came to the same conclusion and articulated such in his opinion as an attorney. The citizens in attendance at recent meetings seem to overwhelmingly agree as well. Cries could be heard from the crowd saying “The seat is vacant.” The Town of Greenville website does not include a picture of Arnold, and a line reads “Group 1 – Vacant.”
Meanwhile, interpersonal conflict infests the Council, dividing it in two. Mayor Malone cited “personal vindictiveness that needs to go away.” By the Council's own admissions during meetings, “meanness and disrespect” are present at every meeting. Council members have accused each other of allowing personal problems to influence their votes. Meetings are plagued with interruptions, over-talking, and sarcastic comments. Council members seem motivated to prove each other wrong at every opportunity. The majority of the time, the council's discontent and unrestrained crudity is directed at each other. However, Vice-Mayor Seabrooks has directed similar behavior toward Town Clerk Kim Reams. During a recent meeting, Seabrooks caught Reams off guard with an unannounced line of questioning regarding her salary and job duties, suggesting that she is not earning her compensation. The exchange prompted a Greenville citizen to email the Town Manager and label Seabrooks' conduct as harassment. The email claimed that Seabrooks' “deliberate targeting of the city clerk reflected a new low in council-city employee relations.”
At the July 10 meeting, Seabrooks took issue with the minutes from the previous meeting, which Reams prepared, going so far as to motion and vote for their removal from the consent agenda. Seabrooks said that Reams had left Arnold out of the minutes in the previous two sets of meetings. Reams said she left Arnold off the minutes because, according to the town attorney and the previous Council meeting, his seat was vacant. Seabrooks told Reams she is supposed to record what council members say in the minutes, verbatim, and because she did not record Arnold's participation in the meeting or what he said, she refused to approve the minutes. Reams replied that according to her clerk training and Robert's Rules of Order, she is only supposed to record the actions of the meetings, such as motions and voting results. Seabrooks said “Mrs. Reams, please. Do not argue with me.”
When Reams was not allowed to explain her position on the minutes further, her husband, seated in the audience, attempted to come to her defense. Mayor Malone cut him off, saying “Mr. Reams be careful. Be careful.”
Seabrooks said that Reams only puts some things in the minutes, to which Reams replied, “There's a lot of things I don't put in there. I don't put all the times that you've been ugly to me.”
“Mrs. Reams you're out of order,” Seabrooks erupted.
“I am not out of order,” Reams replied.
Other notable blemishes on the town council include ex-Town Manager Jim McCroskey reportedly deleting his official emails from his work computer upon his departure; however, the Clerk's Office employed a computer specialist to retrieve them. Council Member Joi Collins reported at the June 12 meeting that the family member of another Council member had threatened her on social media. That person turned out to be a daughter of Arnold, who accused Collins of not being the innocent person she pretends to be, and suggesting she was almost ready to “air out dirty landry.” The post also said “My advice to you and your sidekicks is to stop harassing my dad because I will not tolerate the pettiness and stupidity anymore.” Inconsistent with typical rules of order, Brittni Brown, sister to Seabrooks, is allowed to speak out beyond the citizen's participation portion of meetings, as if she were a member of the Council. Greene Publishing, Inc. received an anonymous email reporting that members of the Council stand outside Town Hall after meetings, possibly discussing town business. The email continued to say that those same members have a pattern of voting cohesively.
Recently, Council Member Collins acknowledged the Council's problems, but said she remains optimistic at the same time. “I do think that the Town Council can recover from this. At the end of the day, I live in Greenville, and I will defend it tooth and nail.” However, without a Town Manager or Town Attorney, and with a split Council, Greenville's future is uncertain. If the past four months' meetings are signs of what is to be expected, that future looks bleak. If collusion is happening between Town Council Members, it is a violation of Florida's Sunshine Laws. If the conduct of Town Council members creates a hostile work environment for Town employees, serious consequences might be inevitable.