2009-08-20 / Front Page

Murchison City Council, mayor struggle to define roles, documents reveal

Paul Bryant Managing Editor

Hill Hill Documents obtained by the Statesman show a Murchison City Hall in disarray, its council members arguing over municipal officers' job descriptions and the scope of their powers and struggling to reconcile financial materials.

Sharon Chase, one of two city officials who resigned between Aug. 6 and Aug. 11, said she watched council members and Mayor Mike Hill fumble through municipal policies and procedures since they took office in May.

When she offered insight on how to execute city business according to guidelines provided by the Texas Municipal League and set by state law, she was publicly and privately ridiculed.

"I loved my job, but it was apparently not what they wanted. I felt the same as Porter. There were policies set - not laws - they were trying to make for themselves. And they all broke them. They don't want to listen to anybody who has already been there."

Council member Porter Kelly resigned on Aug. 6, and Hill five days later appointed his sister, Deanna Benson, to serve the remainder of Kelly's two-year term. She was sworn in Tuesday night.

"There's no such thing as nepotism," Hill said. "She came down and turned in a letter requesting to serve. They approved it, and we swore her in."

Boyles Boyles Benson was the only person who inquired about the vacant seat.

"Not a lot of people want that job," he said.

The mayor also denied he was displaying favoritism by appointing a relative to the council.

"There's no money passing hands between the council and the city."

Moreover, the position Chase vacated when she resigned Aug. 11 has not been filled. Hill contends the office of city secretary is not an appointed one under state law.

"We do not have a secretary right now; we have a temp, Pam Tedford. She is filling in until we can take care of business. The city secretary is hired, not appointed, and we're taking applications. The council will review those."

But Chase insists she was appointed by the council as state law requires and remains city secretary because the council never accepted her letter.

"Technically, they still have to pay me," she said.

Chase and Kelly have accused Hill of wrongdoing and criticized the council for backing him.

In one case, Chase said she warned Hill he was breaking the law by auctioning a city backhoe without council approval.

In another, Kelly and Chase questioned the mayor's purchase of a $1,400 pump to repair a water-line break before seeking council approval and after renting a pump for the same job.

A city ordinance requires the mayor to get approval from the council on expenditures exceeding $500, Chase said.

To circumvent the ordinance, Hill requested four invoices instead of a single document showing the total price from the company from which the pump was purchased.

In the minutes from a July 30 work session, council member Megan Harville is cited as saying that if something is needed for the sewer or water systems, it should be acquired without calling a meeting, regardless of the price of the equipment.

Further, those minutes show Kelly asked why a special meeting could not be called and council member Diane Crutchfield told Kelly it was not necessary because the situation did not constitute "an act of God." During the same work session, Mayor Pro-Tem Ann Boyles said Hill "ran it by her" to get permission to buy the $1,400 pump.

Separately, the council is trying to collect payments on accounts from 2007 after Chase discovered last year a bag containing $9,000 that was locked in a safe.

"I got about $7,500 deposited, but there's about $1,500 missing in cash from 2006 and 2007," Chase said. "I couldn't find a receipt book, and Megan Harville said it was burned."

Harville, Chase said, resigned as city secretary in 2007. She has been on the council for more than a year.

A letter drafted by Boyles asks residents who delivered payments to the city in 2007 "to take care of a financial responsibility that has been pending for more than a year.

"In 2007, expired checks that customers such as you had sent the City of Murchison, in good faith, to pay you water/sewer bills were found locked in a secured location that was not normally used to store payments."

The letter absolves residents of any responsibility for the city's actions while "challenging" them to make their payments again.

"We simply wanted to give you the opportunity to pay this outstanding debt that initially was certainly not a fault of yours.

"Presently, we are preparing for an audit and wanted you to certainly have the chance to clear your name from this list, prior to submission to the auditor."

Council minutes, correspondence, budget materials, and other official documents are public record under Texas law.

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