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03-30-04 Councilors bow; allow LaRue to build her ‘team’

By Sean Rice
srice@dailystandard.com

A majority of Celina City Council members decided Monday to not approve Kent Bryan, former engineer for Fanning/Howey Associates, as the next community development director.
   Instead they agreed to stand aside on the issue, allowing Mayor Sharon LaRue to pay for Bryan’s services using community development and professional consulting money already included in the 2004 budget. The privilege of hiring consultants without council’s expressed approval comes with the mayor’s post, if enough money is budgeted.
   Council’s personnel and finance committee made a motion at the end of a two-hour meeting to table indefinitely the ordinance under consideration that would have approved Bryan’s contract for community development and engineering services.
   Under that contract Bryan would work for the city an average of 24 hours a week and receive $4,800 per month. LaRue several times said 24 hours per week is the minimum. The short week allows Bryan to finish two projects in Indiana for Fanning Howey, of Celina.
   LaRue said during the Monday night meeting she still plans to hire Bryan under the terms in the contract, although it won’t be approved by council. A new contract will have to be signed between Bryan and LaRue. The move to hire Bryan comes on the heels of LaRue’s actions to lighten the employee load in the city, where she dismissed the former development director and an administrative assistant, and asked Safety-Service Director Mike Sovinski to retire.
   “What I am asking from council ... is to give me a chance to prove. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the first to say ‘sorry guys,’ ” LaRue said of her plans for the new administration. “I’m willing to put my reputation on the line.
   “When you see what’s happening in the next few months, I think that will help you make your decision,” she continued.
   The five council members present Monday conceded to LaRue’s plan to run the city with Jeff Hazel as safety-service director, with assistance from consultants Bryan and Ron Puthoff of Chickasaw.
   Puthoff is an independent professional consultant who has provided grant-writing services for several Mercer and Auglaize county villages and is a former county commissioner. LaRue recently hired Puthoff for $30 an hour to help with the West Bank Road boardwalk and other city projects.
   Hazel is currently director of administrative services for Celina. When he moves to safety-service director, LaRue said she is not planning to fill his former position, and the development director position will not be filled this year either.
   Council member Chris Mohler summed-up the committee’s sentiment after a long discussion: “This will give her (LaRue) a chance to build her team.”
   Member Rick Bachelor began the discussion on Bryan’s contract asking: “What is the position we’re hiring for exactly.”
   Bachelor complained of the lack of explanation from LaRue. Council was presented with a contract for engineering services and an ordinance stating Bryan is the new community development director.
   Bachelor said LaRue “better get it on the table” if she intends to hire Bryan as community development director/engineer, a position that doesn’t exist in the city.
   LaRue has said the nine months remaining this year will serve as a trial period for both the city and Bryan, and she does want Bryan to be a permanent employee.
   Bachelor pointed out Celina has never filled the position of city engineer, and Bryan’s current contract price, if annualized, would be double the salary of the development director position.
   The current proposal for Bryan, $4,800 per month at 24 hours per week, equals approximately $50 per hour. If that was full-time pay, Bryan would be paid more that $100,000 per year, Bachelor pointed out. Former development director Sue Canary was earning about $56,000 per year.
   Also, the city engineer reports to the safety-service director, while the development director “serves at the pleasure of the mayor,” Bachelor noted of combing the two positions.
   LaRue impressed on the committee that her “team” of Puthoff, Bryan and Hazel will get good things done for the city.
   Council member Angie King, who supported the Bryan contract since inception, said LaRue’s “creative staffing” could provide a cost savings, because no health or insurance benefits will be paid to consultants and less money will have to be paid to outside consultants.
   When LaRue mentioned Puthoff is already working on grants for the boardwalk, Bachelor asked, “Is Ron working for free too?”
   Bachelor was referring to Bryan working for the city for the last two weeks without an approved contract.
   LaRue said Puthoff, “is very well acquainted in Columbus” and hears very early about new grant possibilities.
   After discussions on Bryan’s extensive engineering background and the requirements of the development director’s position, Bachelor pointed out the engineer and development director position don’t mix.
   “I don’t have any problem with Kent at all, he will make a great community development director,” Bachelor said. “But the pay is not in line with the community development position.”
   At that point, LaRue proposed to hire Bryan as a consultant, which doesn’t require council approval.
   “The way the city is set up with job descriptions, the only way to realistically do this ... is to go the route the mayor has suggested,” Bachelor said.
   “At the end of the day, we’re not doing anything different,” member Denny Smith said of the arrangement.
   LaRue said she spoke with Auditor Pat Smith, who said current dollars in consulting accounts and the community development funds can cover Bryan’s codeges for this year. Council would need to approve those funds being redistributed.
   Mohler said council members need to either get behind the plan or not.
   “I do not want something to get derailed six months from now over $5,000 in consulting fees (that council will not approve),” he said.
   King said she is concerned about the uncertainty involved when LaRue asks for more money from council. “It could get political,” she said.
   “I mean, but what is this all, but politics,” Bachelor contended.
   When King asked if council could starve-off funds and kill LaRue’s plan, Bachelor answered with a smile, “That’s a possibility.”

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