By Melodee Mabbitt
Flint residents could meet their new ombudsperson as soon as September.
This was announced by the Ethics and Accountability Board at a press conference in city council chambers July 23 to reveal the hiring process for the position. Applications closed July 12 and interviews will begin in August.
Board members said they continue to struggle to work closely with the City’s Human Resources and Labor Relations Department during the hiring process.
EVM and Channel 25 TV were the only press present at the conference. Former charter commissioner Quincy Murphy was the only member of the public in attendance.
“We’re keeping our crosshairs on that target of the ombudsman,” board member Allen Gilbert said. The board has struggled to perform basic functions since funding for their work was withheld by the City until after the ombudsman position is filled, he said.
Charter-mandated funds withheld by City pending hiring of ombudsperson
Though the new city charter, approved by voters in August, 2017, and a corresponding ordinance provide $250,000 for the ombudsperson work, a decision by City Attorney Angela Wheeler interpreted that this funding should be withheld from the Ethics and Accountability Board until an ombudsperson is in office.
Charter commissioner Jim Richardson explained in an interview with EVMthat in drafting the charter, commissioners intended the $250,000 designated by the charter be used by the board toward the process of hiring an ombudsperson.
“The board could have hired an attorney or other help in developing policies and procedures and avoided a lot of the drama that has resulted,” Richardson said.
Though the city charter states that the primary responsibility of the Ethics and Accountability Board is to appoint an ombudsperson, the City administration put responsibility for the hiring under the purview of the City’s human relations department.
Sec. 3-506 APPOINT AN OMBUDSPERSON.
A. The Ethics and Accountability Board shall appoint an Ombudsperson who shall serve at the will of the Ethics and Accountability Board.
At its June 9 meeting, members of the Ethics and Accountability Board lamented their lack of inclusion in the ombudsperson hiring process, including not being notified when the position was posted on the website, how many applications were received, or where the ombudsperson’s office will be located once hired. It is also unclear to them whether members of the public will be allowed to attend interviews.
Who’s in charge of hiring? Human relations office or EAB?
Board member Nicholas D’Aigle clarified to the board that though a representative from human relations had attended a previous meeting and assured the board that they would work closely on the hiring process, no one from human relations was present at the meeting.
Instead, board chair Loyce Driskell shared a memo at the July 9 board meeting from City administration that argued that the hiring of the ombudsperson is strictly in the purview of the human resources department because members of the Ethics and Accountability Board are volunteers. The memo points to Section 4-401 B of the Flint City Charter which outlines the duties of the human resources department:
Sec. 4-401 HUMAN RESOURCES DEPARTMENT.
B. This system shall provide means to recruit, select, develop and maintain an effective workforce and responsive workforce, and shall include policies and procedures for volunteers or others acting on behalf of the City of Flint, employee hiring and advancement, training and career development, job classification, salary administration, retirement, fringe benefits, disciple, discharge, and other related activities.”
“When it is convenient to follow the charter, it is being followed. Let’s just put it like that,” said Driskell. “We were told that there were some positions that were hired here and that didn’t even go through HR. So we thought we had some leeway in this. But when you want to follow the charter, you can follow the charter and they have decided for this position specifically to follow the charter.”
Gilbert indicated at the press conference that human relations has informed the board that they will be included in the application review process after an initial sorting for qualified applicants.
Resolution to fund EAB passes through Council, waits on mayor’s desk
After the July 9 Ethics and Accountability Board meeting, First Ward Councilman Eric Mays took the initiative to propose a resolution to the council providing $50,000 to the board.
Though it was not on the agenda, the resolution unanimously passed a vote by city council in a special meeting on July 10. However, the resolution had not obtained the necessary signatures from the administrative, legal, or finance departments and had not been publicly available for the five days required by the city charter. It now awaits the mayor’s signature. If signed, the resolution requires a final vote by city council.
Gilbert stated the city continues to not provide Ethics and Accountability Board members with any point of contact through the City’s website and information infrastructure. He told EVM that board chair Driskell has contacted the City IT department to attempt to have a web page on the City website created for the board and an electronic complaint form included on the website. Gilbert also raised this issue during public comment at the July 22 City Council meeting. No action by the City has taken place.
[Editor’s note: EVM has chosen to use the term “ombudsperson” for the position, but will use “ombudsman” when quoting official sources that use the term ombudsman]
EVM Staff Writer Melodee Mabbitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.