By: Madeleine DeAndreis-Ayres
Submitted: Nov. 2, 2023
Fort Jones City Council has made many decisions in the past year that citizens were not aware of but impact us all nonetheless. We no longer have consistent news sources printing or posting news. Because it is important to get the information out, below is a summary of some of the decisions made and executed by the council and Mayor Mercedes Garcia. The Fort Jones Town Council has not posted meeting minutes online since last March.
In this article I will try to fairly represent what decisions the council has made in the recent past. If I include opinion, I will label it as such. Facts are not subjective; facts can be verified by checking council minutes should they ever be posted. Germane to that statement it needs to be known that the town council has not had any staff member take minutes for several months, so Mayor Mercedes Garcia is setting the agenda, running the meetings and taking the minutes. The legality and propriety of this questionable practice has not been determined.
It is known that the previous town administrator, Karl Drexel was fired last year by Mayor Garcia and councilpersons Kathye Banks and Mark Gephord. His firing necessitated hiring a new administrator, which proved extremely difficult for the council. After offering the position to at least one candidate who declined, the council turned to the then Etna City Administrator, Adam Cox and hired his consulting company, Sectaris Partners—an outfit based in Merced California—to act as manager of day-to-day operations for Fort Jones.
At the time of the abrupt Drexel-Cox transition, the town office had three employees, a Town Clerk, and Deputy Clerk and an Account Clerk. During the early months after the council hired Sectaris, all three left employment with Fort Jones; leaving the office critically understaffed. During this time, Adam Cox/Sectaris has billed the town consulting fees for his time under contract, approximating $100,000 for less than 9 months work. He did not work out of the town office full or part time. According to Sectaris invoices, Mr. Cox charged the town $100. an hour for what he calls “project work.” No breakout of tasks are listed. His assistant who works remotely also billed “project work” at a base rate of $80.00 per hour.
At the last regularly scheduled council meeting the council was asked what “project work” did Sectaris do? The council either didn’t know or wouldn’t say. It was said that until Cox was paid his final invoice, he would not release that information.
It was my impression, and this is MY observation, not a fact, that the council was at a complete loss on how to handle Sectaris and did not have any leverage to compel Sectaris to deliver a breakdown of what actual work was accomplished. In other words, the taxpayers are paying $100,000 for a white elephant and seem to have no recourse.
At the regular council meeting of October 9th, Charlie Pillion, CPA spoke about the town audit mess. (“mess” IS subjective but I really couldn’t figure out a better word for it.) The facts are this: Fort Jones was run for years by an office and a city council that did not adhere to basic business principles. Each thought the other was doing their job but, in fact, critical town audits were not conducted every two years as per State/Federal regulations. Pillion explained that Karl Drexel was working on town audits and had a firm doing the work while he searched to provide decades old financial documents, receipts, statements, etc. Suffice to say, old shoe boxes, file drawers and hard drives have yielded only partial documentation. Mr. Drexel was attempting to drive this process forward with the scattered information that still exists. Mr. Drexel was able to complete provisional or “qualified” audits for the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Whether these audits will pass muster with the state remains to be seen. When the council fired Mr. Drexel, the auditing investigation stopped and the work product seems to have been sitting with the firm Mr. Drexel hired to do the official audits. In other words, Mr. Drexel did a huge amount of work on a stinking mess caused by other employees and town councils and he was fired leaving the town dead in the water on audits. Unless, of course, Sectaris was working on those audits and plans to release that information when it receives final compensation. (That was sort of an opinion but was conjectured during the meeting.) Pillion had no words of comfort on this mess but was at least able to answer questions and provide real information.
Why do we care about audits? Because without professional level bookkeeping and regular audits our town cannot apply for special funding to do all the work a town needs to function and flourish. Grants for sewer/water, streets, lights, construction, roads, housing, employees, libraries—just about everything a town needs to do—cannot be awarded unless our books are presentable and audits are done. Many current and past projects have and will be in jeopardy because the office has experienced so much upheaval in the past year leaving a critical gap in leadership. No one to administer grants, track monies, or make contacts means a backlog of work for the next hired. Why three employees left is the subject of conjecture and rumors, all of which are not facts.
Recently, this city council voted to return a hefty parks grant that the previous council wrote and was awarded. The grant awarded over $480,000 for the building of a park. The reason for the returning of this money seems to be that the current council didn’t want the park and “heard” that many citizens didn’t want it either. Included in this grant were plans for downtown public restrooms and an entertainment arena.
Opinion alert…if every time a new council chooses to void a project of the previous council, nothing at all will ever get done. And returning that money means all the businesses in our town who would have benefited from the spending of the grant money will not benefit. This means the lumber yard, the hardware store, the restaurants, landscaping businesses, garbage and rental facilities. It also means that the granting office will not look favorably on the next grant submission from Fort Jones. Nobody likes to have their time wasted on this kind of petty behavior. I also wonder if any of the people this council “heard” from were the businesses who actually deal with tourists looking for things to do in addition to public restroom facilities.
Also at one of the recent council meetings, again, the date is hard to pin down because of the lack of minutes, the council voted to reduce public comment time from 5 minutes to 3 minutes. No rationalization was given unless it is in the ephemeral minutes. If you plan to speak at a meeting, be sure to be concise to cover all your points. Which is not bad advice regardless of the length of time given to speak.
The last item of council business to cover is the budget. Budgets are boring, but they have to be done and done (a) correctly and (b) on time. If either is not executed, consequences are far reaching and can be disastrous. Under previous administrations, most recently when Michelle DeCausmaker was mayor, budgets were always adopted in May for the next fiscal year which begins on July 1. This gave the council plenty of time to review and make revisions. This year the mayor did not have a budget to present until the budget deadline for delinquencies which is/was September 30th.When Adam Cox finally presented a budget in September, the document he presented included pages from Etna City budget along with actual signatures of Etna city council persons. In other words, Sectaris copied and pasted old budget documents from another client (Etna) and tried to pass it off as original work. By this time Sectaris had presented its final bill to the town and the council had no time to review “the budget” which turned out to be a substandard document not fit to be called and a budget (my opinion). So again, what did the town receive from the “project work” of Sectaris beyond massive bills? The town’s budget is still a jumble of confusion and the submission deadline is well past.
At the October 20th meeting, the council voted to offer one Joshua Stanshaw the job of Town Administrator/Clerk. There was much discussion on what the duties were attached to this hybrid position and this writer couldn’t tell you what was resolved. It seemed the council wasn’t clear on this either. The citizens who attended the meeting were extremely skeptical about the hire, talk about the salary (95,000 a year plus benefits) went on for a while and the vote was all ayes to hire Mr. Stanshaw. It was promised that he would work in the office every day, and report to the council who is also free to direct him. The Mayor said they could “direct” an employee but not a consultant.
Also at this meeting the council voted to promote Carolin Hoefer from her position to another position. Sorry for the vague details, by this time my head was spinning and I couldn’t keep track of job titles. Congratulations Carolin and good luck.
I don’t mean to short shrift the other agenda items, if meeting minutes get posted look for reports from the Police, Fire and Public Works departments, all of which seem to be professionally run and led well. They and all town employees deserve our support. The library and museum have issues with the council and again, maybe you can find that information in the minutes. As I said before, my head was spinning. The audit mess, oy vey.
Again, don’t believe everything you hear, find out for yourself. Go to the council meetings and pay attention, be helpful, and do your part. We may have a new Town Administrator, let’s not only hope he does well but actually help him where we can.
Regularly scheduled council meetings are the second Monday of each month. Usually at 6pm. Unscheduled special meetings are posted 24 hours in advance either on the town website, post office or other public boards.