Flint, MI–The Ethics and Accountability Board of Flint met June 16, to discuss complaints regarding Councilman Eric Mays.
Ombudsperson Tané Dorsey presented two complaints to the board. The first had to do with Mays performing a Nazi salute towards Council President Monica Galloway in a general meeting on Jan. 13. The second was filed by Mays, with regards to his 30-day suspension from City Council in March.
For the first complaint, Dorsey did not recommend further punishment or forfeiture of office for Mays, stating that she “did not believe the situation rose to violation of the charter.” The Board voted 6-1 to accept her determination.
“The charter is not very clear on behavior ethics,” she said. “There is an ethics provision in the charter, but basically it says you should just be nice.”
Dorsey said the charter is very clear about removal from office and that there are specific instances for when a person can be removed: committing a felony, lacking qualifications, or violating a provision.
“Did he violate the charter by not being nice? I don’t want to minimize it because what he said is unacceptable, but that all has to be balanced with the fact that he is an elected official,” she said. “To just recommend forfeiture of office without considering his constituents, I don’t think it’s doing the city the best service.”
She added that “there have been a lot of things where people do not play nice in the sandbox on that council.”
“If we go down that road, we’d be recommending forfeiture of office a lot,” she said.
Board Chair Allen Gilbert said that while he found the salute offensive, he also did not feel it was a violation.
“I don’t like it, I didn’t appreciate it, I don’t think it was right, but was it a violation? That’s the question,” Gilbert said. “The language of the charter says it’s not.”
Gilbert said that a councilman’s behavior will eventually be punished by voters.
“The heart of it is we don’t want elected officials to conduct themselves in that way, and he did it but he apologized and we expressed we are offended by it,” Gilbert said. “We can recommend discipline or punishment but we don’t want to go down that road because Councilman Mays and the other eight city councilmen, they’re elected by the people. The citizens of Flint can exact punishment–the punishment is you won’t get voted in again.”
Zack Lessner was the only vote against the recommendation.
“I can understand what they were saying, but ‘accountability’ is in our name and I just felt that I wanted to hold the council accountable for their vote, because even though they handled it with the 30 days, I thought it was way too light,” Lessner said. “With the climate that we’re in, it’s insane to do a gesture like that. You’re asking to be fired whether or not you’re capable or have expertise…at some point you can sort of show you’re not fit for a job.”
Lessner was also concerned that they were setting a “bad precedent” for future issues.
“If somebody else…does something like that, now how do you punish them? You have to give them 30 days because look what Eric Mays got,” he said.
The second complaint, filed by Mays, asserted that the City Council violated due process and the charter when they voted to suspend him after removing him from a meeting on March 4.
For this complaint, Dorsey recommended the council update its rules for the City of Flint Charter to clarify how to handle these situations, and set rules for progressive discipline of council members. The Board voted 5-1 (two members left the meeting before voting) to accept her recommendation.
Mays’ removal from the meeting in March was not an isolated incident.
He was removed from a general meeting on Jan. 27, two weeks after he performed the Nazi salute, and stripped of his roles as finance committee chairman and council vice president. Just over a week later, he was removed from a governmental operations committee meeting on Feb. 5. In a special meeting on Feb. 17, Galloway had a police officer escort Mays out.
“I complained that the City Council has repeatedly violated its rules and charter by having me removed from my elected seat by force with police when I did not do anything wrong,” he said. “They didn’t do due process, they didn’t establish no rule…there was no 30-day removal rule.”
Dorsey said council rules state that a council member can be removed from a meeting for being disorderly, but there is no mention of subsequent removal.
Additionally the council “may punish its own members for misconduct,” but it doesn’t specify how, or say they have to set up rules for those punishments.
“I don’t see that the council violated the charter, however, I did feel it was important to note that even though the charter doesn’t say you have to make rules before you issue the punishment, it would be best practice to do that,” Dorsey said.
She said that without written policy, punishments can seem “arbitrary and capricious,” which is what Mays feels his 30-day suspension was.
“You can’t just make up rules willy-nilly and remove people from their elected seat,” Mays said. “If they could do that, they could remove me for 60 days, six months, or a year.”
He added that, “when you follow rules and create rules, it gives people notice, and then you know what your punishment could be and you can act accordingly.”
It will ultimately be left up to the council to decide what they would like to do with Dorsey’s recommendation to update council rules.