HAMPTON – While the Hampton Ethics Board dismissed complaints against the city’s mayor and three members of its City Council, the board did express some concerns with the way those council members handled business.
The ethics complaints in question were filed by Councilman Elton Brown, who brought multiple complaints against Mayor Steve Hutchison and Councilmembers Stephanie Bodie, Henry Byrd and Errol Mitchell, related to the termination of former city manager Charles Coney late last year.
Brown’s complaints centered around what he saw as Hutchison’s attempts to get an ordinance changed that would make it easier for the City Council to remove a city manager. That ordinance was changed in October in what Brown called “an illegal vote” as Hutchison voted on a matter that gave him more power.
His complaints also centered around what he described as members of the council using their office to coerce members of the council to vote their way.
To back this claim, Brown played a voicemail from a Mrs. Pyle, that was apparently meant for Henry Byrd but was sent to Brown’s city phone instead.
“Hey, Henry, this is Luanne, we were wondering if you could talk to Errol if he was still on board… to vote for Steve to get the vote behind closed doors,” says a woman on the voicemail.
That woman was not summoned to speak at the Ethics Board hearing to confirm or deny she had sent the voicemail. All four of the accused denied receiving such a request after being asked by board member Alford Williams.
The other complaint concerned a violation of the confidentiality of information shared during executive sessions, which centered around that voicemail, which Brown said “was talking about something we’re talking about in executive session.”
Change in ordinance allowed for Coney removal; Brown views change as ‘illegal’
In October, the council voted 3-3 to change an ordinance that would allow for the mayor to vote for the removal of a city manager.
Previously, to remove a city manager, the mayor needed to get written consent from four members of the City Council at least 48 hours prior to removing that city manager.
According to Brown’s testimony, Hutchison was advised by City Attorney L’Erin Wiggins that he needed to change the ordinance in order to get the city manager removed.
The ordinance change now allows a mayor to cast a tie-breaking vote to suspend or terminate a city manager. That was a move that Brown argued was “illegal” as he said Hutchison voted to give himself more power.
On the other hand, attorney Brian Strickland, who represented the four accused, argued that the change in the ordinance was meant to make the city’s ordinances consistent with its charter.
“Evidence will show that the action taken by the council was consistent with the charter,” Strickland said. “The ordinance was inconsistent (with the charter).”
Strickland warns against politicizing ethics complaints
“What we have here instead is a situation where one councilman is abusing this process, trying to use the ethics committee to win a political fight,” Strickland said. “It’s unfortunate. It happens all the time in politics, people disagree on things. He happened to lose a vote on an issue, and we happened to lose a city manager in this city.”
Strickland said nothing the council did violated the city’s ethics code, and later said these ethics complaints didn’t look good for the city or those who work and live in it.
“Think about how that looks,” Strickland said. “Most of us have thick skin. I get called things all the time, but that’s not how this should work,” said Strickland, who is a member of the House of Representatives. “They’re being called unethical? And their family has to hear that? That’s just wrong.”
Instead, Strickland suggested that rather than filing ethics complaints over a disagreement, those unhappy with a political decision should voice their opinion at the polls.
“The last thing Hampton needs is more of these ethics hearings,” Strickland said.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Tuesday’s proceedings was the questioning of Brown by Strickland.
The questioning got tense at times, with Brown accusing Strickland of badgering him and putting words in his mouth, while Strickland pressed Brown for answers as to why he filed the ethics claims for a matter that didn’t go his way in a council meeting. Each of Brown’s claims was questioned by Strickland.
During the questioning, Brown stated that Hutchison, in conducting his meetings, chooses to favor a group of residents he calls the “peanut gallery.”
“They’re the ones that dictate what he does, to the point that, if there’s not even a public comment, he’s calling and urging some of these people to come up by first name,” Brown said.
The “peanut gallery,” a group of longtime Hampton residents, typically sits on the left side of the council chamber and many are on hand for most, if not all, of the Hampton City Council’s meetings, whether regularly scheduled or specially called.
While the air was tense during the questioning phase of the hearing, it remained professional, and Brown shook hands with both Hutchison and Strickland after the meeting ended.
Ethics Board concerned with city leadership
After an executive session that lasted around two hours, the Hampton Ethics Board dismissed the complaints brought by Brown, but that did not mean they were not concerned with what had happened with the Hampton City Council.
Bud Smith, the chairman of the Ethics Board and the hearing administrator, expressed some of those concerns after the board voted to recommend dismissal.
“The panel has concerns by what is being exhibited by city leadership and affecting the confidence of the public. The trust of citizens in government is cultivated by individual public servants acting with integrity, and aware of public servants acting with integrity,” he said.
Brown wasn’t upset after the findings, stating the hearing showed the city needed to handle matters “above board.”
“I’m OK with it,” Brown said. “I think the key thing is we learned to understand that things need to be done above board, for the good of the community, not just for a group of the community.”
“The Ethics Board did their job,” Hutchison said. “We’re going to continue to work together as a City Council, and we’re going to move our city forward. Mr. Strickland presented our case, he did a great job and the Ethics Board did a great job.”
“I’m just happy the ethics committee got it right and they found there was no violation,” Strickland said. “I think there was a lot of politics in all of this, and the ethics committee is not a place to air that out. I’m glad they agree with me and found no violations. Hopefully we, as a city, can come together and move forward and stop these battles that give us a black eye over here.”