Thursday, November 19, 2020

Clerk’s proposal prompts heated board discussion

An exceptionally heated discussion of a proposal for approval of an employment contract ended with withdrawal of the motion in Sumpter Township last week.

During a board of trustees workshop preceding the regular meeting Nov. 10, Township Clerk Esther Hurst proposed an agreement to employ current Deputy Supervisor Karen Armatis as a contract employee in the clerk's office for 16 to 20 hours per week, or as needed, at a rate of $27 per hour. The agreement would be for six months, according to Hurst's request.

The proposal was strongly criticized by Treasurer Kenneth Bednark, who appeared at his first official meeting in more than a year and union employees Anna Winter and Roxanne Riddell. Winter questioned the legitimacy of the proposal and said she was concerned that the agreement would be in violation of the current union contract which clearly specifies the status of  employee “floaters” and cross training of employees. She noted that a previous auditor's report noted that the clerk's office was operated with two employees.

“If another person is hired in the clerk's office I suggest a union person,” she said. She also said that when she asked for help in the water department as she was exceptionally busy, she was told by the finance director that the township was in a hiring freeze and that there was no money for additional help.

Her opinion was seconded by Riddell who said she believed the request to employ Armatis was an effort to subvert the will of the people expressed in the recent election when current Supervisor John Morgan was defeated by Tim Bowman. Armatis works for Morgan. 

“Why bring a person in because during the election they lost their job. The people voted, why circumvent the people's vote? Have the new people even been asked if they want her?”

Hurst explained that currently Armatis is the point person on at least one township lawsuit and is crucial in locating information and history for the township attorneys. She added that currently Armatis is on loan to her office to help with the workload and that she has also been loaned to the treasurer's office when that office was in a crisis and needed help. 

Hurst said this was a temporary contract for six months and after prompting reluctantly recounted that Bowman, accompanied by his son and Bednark, visited her office immediately after the election with a list of all the township employees who were to be fired. She said that Bednark told her that “the cancer would be removed” from the township.

“He is not the new supervisor,” she said. “Why did Bowman have Bednark talk to me instead of himself?”

Tempers continued to flare during the emotional and somewhat raucous meeting as Bednark repeatedly interjected his demand to speak and read a prepared statement during the workshop.

At one point, Morgan repeatedly banged the gavel and loudly declared “We will not lose control of this meeting” as an audience of supporters of the newly-elected officials either applauded or jeered during comments. 

Bednark said that Hurst's statements were untrue and that he had hoped the board meeting would be a celebration thanking the outgoing officials for their years of service but then launched into an attack on both Morgan and Armatis.

“When you campaigned for office your slogan was drain the Sumpter Swamp,” he told Morgan. “You, (Morgan and Armatis) are the swamp and you are putting cronyism ahead of your duty to the community,” he said. He repeatedly accused Morgan and Hurst of putting Armatis above their financial responsibility to the township and characterized Armatis as Morgan's “sidekick” for more than 25 years.

“We now need to heal the divide, the loser will be the community,” Bednark said, and then launched into another blistering attack on Armatis and Hurst.

“You are putting her above the financial responsibility to the township,” he repeated as part of a personal attack on Armatis.

He called the proposed agreement a 'sweetheart' deal and said that “any trustees who vote to bring her (Armatis) back are “sowing seeks of discord.”

Trustee Matt Oddy commented that Hurst had been reelected and has the right to staff her office. He reminded Bednark that when his office got behind in processing payments the first person they called for help was Armatis. While Bednark heatedly denied that claim, Oddy insisted that he still had the emails attesting to the situation.  

“I would remind everyone that there is always another side in every situation,” he said. 

Hurst offered to withdraw her proposal from consideration and it was not acted on by the board members during the official meeting which followed the workshop.