John Willoughby: Greene Publishing, Inc.
After a series of unexpected events, Sarah Anderson vacated her position as City Manager in the middle of the City of Madison Commission meeting on Tuesday, June 12. In attendance were Mayor Ina Thompson and Commissioners Judy Townsend, Jim Catron, Rayne Cooks and Terry Johnson. Also in attendance was attorney Tommy Reeves. David Lawton, a business owner within the City of Madison, was in attendance with a reserved spot on the agenda regarding a sign at Jelani's Party and Event Center, which was taken down by city employees due to the sign being in the city right-of-way.
According to Lawton, he was allegedly given verbal permission last year by former City Manager Tim Bennett, to place his sign neatly in front of the event center. Because Lawton had other things going on, he stated he did not get the sign up until recent months. Lawton hired a professional to climb atop the building to place the sign on the wall. Because of a safety issue, Lawton had the sign placed in front of the event center.
After the sign had been up for approximately 10 days, Lawton received a letter from City Hall stating that the sign had not been permitted to be placed in the front of the business and was in violation of city code for being in the right-of-way. Lawton stated he then came to City Hall to speak with Mary Graham, community development staff assistant, for the purpose of receiving a permit. Due to questions regarding zoning, Graham sent Lawton to Chuck Hitchcock, Director of Community Development. Hitchcock made it known that Lawton was in violation of city code. Lawton proceeded to ask Hitchcock how he can be in violation and Rancho Grande not be in violation of the same code, considering they have a wall in the right-of-way. Lawton later added that he informed Hitchcock that he could pay for a permit. Hitchcock stopped Lawton, wanting to see how Anderson wanted to handle the issue.
According to Lawton, Hitchcock shared with Sarah Anderson that the issue at hand would become a concern, given the fact that the City of Madison – under Tim Bennett's management – allowed an entire wall to be erected. Lawton continued to state that Corner Grill, a local beauty salon, and an antique store was also in violation of the same code.
In an attempt to resolve the issue, Anderson met with Hitchcock and Lawton. "At that time, I was more than willing to try to go back and find a professional. I had asked for help from the city to put the sign back atop the building," said Lawton. He stated that Anderson told him they would give him time to work the issue out, as long as they were actively working it out. However, Anderson informed him in an email the sign had to come up during the month of May.
"I did as well mention to the city manager that this was unfair given my next door neighbor has a wall erected, as well as other businesses that have signs and merchandise in the right-of-way. She [Anderson] told me these things took place before her time here. While I was understanding of that, I also told her that part of her job was to tackle the issues of her predecessor in this particular job, in this specific case, and this situation," said Lawton. He stated he left afterward, noting that he will call his landlord about handling sign placement and decided to continually stay in touch with City Hall.
On Friday, June 1, with a store full of customers, Lawton received notification that his sign will be taken down during business hours. While city employees were working on removing the sign, Lawton asked who had directed them to do so. They responded by naming Anderson. Lawton said that he went to Anderson wondering how his sign could be taken down while they were supposed to be working on a way to figure out how to work the issue out.
According to Lawton, Anderson stated that she had sent a series of emails stating that the sign had to come up by Thursday, May 31. Lawton noted that he never received any of those emails. "I am at City Hall weekly and it apparently never dawned on her to ask me what was going on," said Lawton. "In my opinion, she really didn't care because her intent was never to work with me, but to simply have my sign removed."
Lawton continued to ask if the Rancho Grande wall would be removed, in which he stated Anderson blatantly said "no," she would not move the wall, stating that she had already told him that. "This left me very disturbed because in any case such as this, what's good for the goose is good for the gander," said Lawton.
Lawton iterated that Anderson notified him that he needed to take the issue up with the City Commission as the Commission was pressing her to have the sign removed. In return, he asked several, not all, commissioners about the issue, in which they had not recalled any discussion or instruction regarding the sign. "What I concluded from that was that there must have been some private meeting from a commissioner or maybe some type of email correspondence, telephone call or text message communication with the City Manager to remove my sign. Something about this was extremely fishy to me," said Lawton."
He also stated he came in possession of minutes from April 1 and nothing was stated about his sign in any of the business. "The minutes proved to be a sign to me that the City Manager had lied to me about being pressured by the City Commission to remove my sign," said Lawton. "Although it is hearsay, several of my customers and several city employees on outside crews have directly told me that the initial complaint came from David Floyd. Now, why? I don't know."
Lawton asked the Commission who wanted his sign removed. Lastly, he asked the Commission to vote to reinstall his sign that was removed by direction of the City Manager and have David Floyd reinstall the sign. "This is Madison. This is a small town. When I put that sign up in May, sometime at the beginning of May, business in that event center tripled almost overnight. That is just how important us being able to put signs up and market this business is to us in this downtown area," said Lawton.
As for Anderson's side of the story, Anderson informed the Commission that Lawton came into her office near the end of April. As Lawton stated, Anderson said she did inform Lawton that the sign could be up as long as he was continually working to take the sign down and work through the process. "At no time did Mr. Lawton say anything about Tim Bennett approving that sign," said Anderson.
Anderson continued to state that throughout the month of May, she reiterated that some sort of action needed to be taken by the end of May. Certified letters and emails were sent to Lawton, notifying him toward the beginning of May and the end of May. Anderson stated that she was unaware of any discussion about paying a permit.
According to Anderson, she continued to state that on June 1, Lawton said "Well, what if Mr. Bennett gave me permission to put the sign-up?" She asked if Bennett did approve the sign and Lawton's response was, "Well, can you prove that he didn't?"
As far as the other buildings that Lawton said were in violation, Anderson informed the Commission that the wall at Rancho Grande was grandfathered in and the antique store was closed down as the tenants were not in the building anymore. The plants belonging to the store were taken away. "We had gone over a month, the sign was still there. I had not heard, as I said, anything about Tim Bennett until June 1," said Anderson. "It was put to me that I couldn't prove or disprove, and he's correct. But if Mr. Bennett approved it, how many months went by before anything was erected over there?"
"That is so far from the truth," said Lawton. "That is a lie." Lawton stated that he owns Boost Mobile at the corner of Pinckney St. and Horry St. and when he decided to put an LED sign up, he was denied three times by Bennett before approval. "There was never anything put in writing, there was never any fee that I paid, there was only his word," said Lawton. He stated he was unaware he could have applied for a permit as he was new to town. When Lawton began the event center, he did the same thing, asking Bennett to put up a sign.
Lawton informed the Commission that Anderson stated that she was the new City Manager now and there was nothing she could do about what Bennett did when he was in office. "She said she couldn't prove that," said Lawton, stating that Anderson informed him there was nothing in writing. "So you've got a liar for a City Manager and I'm here to tell you that."
At this time, Anderson's husband, Jim Anderson, got up from his seat in the audience. "You're a son of a b**** and a liar," said Anderson. He was caught by Madison Police Chief Reggie Alexander and was escorted out of the boardroom.
Mayor Thompson stated that it was time to figure out a resolution. "I objected to [the wall Rancho Grande] and knew it was going to come back and get us in the end," said Thompson. She stated that Bennett made that decision. He did not bring it to the Commission. Townsend stated she was also against the wall. "We need to find out what we need to do and move forward." Lawton stated he would like for his sign to be placed where it was.
"We're losing businesses every day in Madison. We need all the employment, all the revenue, and all the income that we can get, and if a sign will help bring business to that business, I see nothing wrong with it if it's neat, decent, and in order," said Cooks. "This could've been handled a little bit better, and that's my recommendation."
Catron stated that a business comes to an area because they think they can make money. "Signs are helpful, advertising is helpful," said Catron. "We've had a new City Manager for several months now and I know it takes time to get around to things. It also takes time to walk down and find out what is needed to be done to put a sign-up." Thompson recommended that a policy needed to be put in place to maintain consistency on signs throughout the City of Madison.
Reeves informed Lawton of a city ordinance that requires a permit. Reeves suggested that the Commission could waive the permit fee. However, Reeves stated there is no guarantee Lawton can get approved for the permit. The ultimate decision would be in the hands of the Commission. "I really didn't know there was a permit process because I always went directly to Mr. Bennett," said Lawton. "If that's what the code requires, that's not a big deal. I can do that. I would like my sign to go back up, that's what I'm asking the Commission to make a decision on."
Reeves continued to state that the Commission can't just authorize the sign to go back up. "What you can do today is you can authorize Mr. Lawton to come in and make the application for the sign. If there is any problem with getting the permit or if he doesn't get any relief, y'all can hold a special meeting to consider that. Then, you would be talking about several days until the issue is resolved," said Reeves. "The only thing you can do now is jump on the process and get it expedited." Cooks suggested that the City use a lift truck to attach the sign atop the building. "We need to work with the business to keep the business," said Cooks.
"I would like for my sign to go back up the way that it was because if I'm going to put it on the side of the building, which I have no issues with, I probably need to get a bigger sign because it [will be] up high," said Lawton. "I'm not opposed totally to that, but then that would mean I would have to go back and restructure a bigger sign. Then later on, when I can get a bigger sign, I'll come back and I'll move that sign myself from in front of the building where I won't have two signs saying the same thing. I was really working on trying to get the sign up high, but it was smashed down before I could do that."
Madison Police Chief Alexander stated that the City of Madison still has ordinances and codes that they have to go by. "If we don't fix the issues with that particular ordinance, [Lawton's] not going to be the last one here standing with that problem," said Alexander.
A motion by Townsend was made that the Commission instruct Lawton file an application for a permit to erect a sign for his business as soon as he can, with the permit fee waived. The motion was seconded by Johnson and was unanimously passed, 5-0.
Later, Anderson exited the room in a medical emergency. She returned shortly after gathering her things from the table, stating she left her keys, badge, and cell phone. "I won't be back," said Anderson, before she proceeded to exit City Hall.
In attendance was Jerome Wyche, who was chosen to be offered the new position as City Manager of the City of Madison. He approached the podium before the end of the meeting to discuss the employment agreement and salary. In the employment agreement, the section outlining retirement benefits was changed to say "Employee shall receive retirement or deferred compensation benefits in the same manner as other employees of the City."
"First let me thank you for having the opportunity to be of service to this Commission and also the citizens of Madison County. I did want to wish the sitting City Manager best regards," said Wyche.
Wyche stated he was able to read over the employment agreement with Mayor Thompson, and came before the board to fill in what was left blank: his compensation. He stated that he receives $54,989.64 annually in his current position as Madison County's Solid Waste and Recycling Coordinator, which is $10.34 shy of what Anderson was currently being paid.
"I'm poised to leave a job that I still like," said Wyche. "I will give you 100 percent. One of the things that I am proud of is that 42 years plus of unblemished managerial experience, as well as personal growth, is a validation that I'd like to bring before the Commission in terms of finding a way to reach a fair offering in the employment. I know the City has a mission and a vision, but I think the overall goal is to provide the best possible service ever to the citizens of the City of Madison. We can get there because nothing happens without a team effort. Sure it'll be hard work, but leaving my current employment [to come] to one that has a great responsibility, I'm prepared to do it. So [what] I'm requesting that the Commission consider is to see if we can find some common ground to support a fair probationary salary offer. I'm sure you've looked at my resume – 42 to 45 plus years of experience has enabled me to be successful unblemished. Now I'd be satisfied with an offering between $60-65,000, and if you think I'm worthy, then I stand ready to serve you and the citizens of Madison."
"Mr. Wyche has a lot more experience," said Townsend. "I know for a fact, he has turned Solid Waste around. I don't think he's being unfair to ask for more money."
Catron stated that several years ago, he encouraged Wyche to apply. He also mentioned the probationary period and how the Commission could look at his salary after six months. "You hit me a little hard when you got to that 60. I was looking more like 58 or 59," said Catron.
"If we went out and looked at the other applicants, would someone come into Madison for 60?" asked Cooks. "I don't think we would get somebody more qualified with a degree – we have to look at the whole total picture: degree, experience, the whole situation."
"Degrees are nice, but there's something to be said for experience," said Townsend. "You can't buy experience."
Catron moved to approve Wyche's contract with a salary set at $60,000 per year. A second was given by Johnson. Catron informed Wyche that a bump in salary would not be guaranteed at the end of the probationary period. "We'll worry about those things later," said Wyche.
The motion passed unanimously and Wyche was officially hired as the new Madison City Manager. Wyche is expected to be at a special meeting on Tuesday, June 26 at 5:30, at City Hall, for an audit report.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the Madison City Commission. will take place on Tuesday, July 10, at 5:30 p.m. Madison City Hall is located at 321 SW Rutledge St., in Madison.