It is still unclear who will fill in as city manager in East Ridge when Scott Miller retires at the end of this month.
Thursday night’s East Ridge City Council meeting was dominated by a rancorous, extended discussion about Miller’s replacement, whether or not to create a new position in the organizational chart, and how much money that person should be paid while performing the duties of Assistant City Manager.
Ultimately, the council could not come to a consensus and tabled the ordinance, possibly necessitating a special called meeting if they want to have someone in place on October 26, the date Miller said he would retire.
Miller, who has been the city manager for nearly three years, has groomed Kenny Custer, the city’s Director of City Services, to assume the city manager’s job upon Miller’s departure. Custer would do the job until a permanent city manager can be hired, a process which Miller said could take three or four months.
Councilman Jacky Cagle kicked off the discussion by proposing that the assistant city manager be paid $1,000 per month above the salary that he is currently being paid, about $64,000. Discussion ensued about whether that amount of money was adequate.
Outgoing Mayor Brent Lambert took an opportunity to harshly rebuke councils past and present for the way it has treated city managers and those who have stepped in as interim. He said he had never publicly expressed his feelings and believed it was “disgraceful the way we treated city managers in the past.”
“This council decided to run off several people who ably filled this spot,” he said. “The last one (Andrew Hyatt) did not want to go. He was let go because he would not agree to fire someone. That’s it. That’s all there was to it. The majority on the council wanted somebody gone and Mr. Hyatt wouldn’t do it.
“I want the best for this city, but the best will never happen if we don’t stop playing these petty games of ‘you do what I say or we will get rid of you,'” he continued. “It’s garbage.”
Lambert said that past councils treated interim city managers harshly, too. He said that Eddie Phillips and Frieda Wheeler – who stepped in to serve temporarily as city manager – are fine people who served the community.
“They came and they went,” Lambert said. “They wouldn’t do the bidding of the majority on the council. So they were part of the revolving door.”
Lambert’s advice to Custer was to not accept the position.
Councilman Brian Williams eventually made a motion that the Assistant City Manager would be appointed by the City Manager with the approval of the council. The Assistant City Manger would be paid $85,000 a year. The Assistant City Manager would be in title only and not a newly-created position.
“I’m not comfortable creating another level of management,” Williams said in reference to the ACM being given simply a title. “We need additional police and firefighters more than we need another level (of management).”
Councilwoman Esther Helton seconded the motion for discussion. She said the “salary is a little low.”
She then asked how Custer felt about taking over the position of Assistant City Manager?
Custer addressed the council and said that he started his career with East Ridge 19 years ago as a volunteer firefighter. He said that each new job with the city that he accepted (fire marshal, codes enforcement, WWTA and Stormwater representative, Director of City Services) created different challenges.
He noted that during his career he had seen 11 city managers come and go. Custer said that in recent months he was offered the job of “the number two man at the state fire marshal’s office, which I turned down.” He said he has a lot of ties to the community.
“In my mind, I have an obligation to the 21,000 people who live here and will do what I’m supposed to do,” a reference to elected officials interfering with past interim city managers’ duties.
Custer said he is still considering the option of taking on the job of Assistant City Manager, dependent upon the salary.
“I started here and this is where I want to finish,” he said.
Helton then withdrew her original second to Williams’ motion and made a motion to bump the salary to $95,000. That motion died for a lack of a second.
Williams’ original motion died for a lack of a second.
“I’d like to postpone discussion and go on with the rest of the agenda,” Cagle said.”We can put this off and come back with a fresh mind,”
Cagle said that the council could have a special called meeting to decide the issue. It was also noted that Vice-Mayor Larry Sewell was absent, as he is on vacation.