Nepotism clause leads to Norris council resignation

Newly elected Norris city councilwoman Jessica Ogburn has resigned.

Her decision comes after a special meeting was called last Thursday to discuss the city’s nepotism clause.

That clause was brought up when former Norris volunteer fire chief Scott Hackler was hired as city manager earlier this month. His son, Gabe Hackler, was employed by the city as a dispatcher.

Gabe has also resigned.

Although Ogburn wasn’t the impetus behind calling the meeting, she did fall in the line of fire. Ogburn’s husband, Sam, is the interim police chief of Norris. When Jessica Ogburn learned Sam’s job could be on the line due to the city’s nepotism clause, she decided to resign rather than risk him lose his job.

This is the second conflict of interest-related issue council members are facing in the county. Clinton city councilmember E.T. Stamey is currently being sued for being a Clinton City Schools employee and serving on council by Ron Young, his opponent in the 2018 race. In both cases, the legality of their office was questioned after the fact.

In Ogburn’s letter, which was read aloud during Thursday’s meeting, she stated that prior to running for city council, she spoke with the previous city manager “regarding the potential conflict of having a family member in a city employee position” if she were to win the election.

“It was reported that there was no conflict and I could continue to run for office,” the letter said.

She had been encouraged to run by many people in Norris, including City of Norris Mayor Chris Mitchell.

Once she was elected, Ogburn said the Municipal Technical Advisory Service responded to an email from the City of Norris regarding what she could and could not vote on pertaining to her husband and his job.

MTAS said that they checked with their legal consultant and she could vote on the entire budget.

“But it would be advised to disclose that there is an indirect interest and it would not affect her vote,” they said. “Also, she could vote on any equipment, etc. for the police department as a whole.

“The only items not to vote on would be anything with his pay or his hiring status.”

There was no mention of conflict, nepotism or resignation, according to Ogburn.

“I was told I was allowed to hold a position on council while my family member held a city position,” she said in her resignation letter. “I would not have run for city council if I had been told otherwise.”

A nepotism clause isn’t required by state law, according to Norris City Attorney Eddie Pratt. Many towns, however, do have them in their city charter. And that’s where the problem comes from. Norris’ charter states, “No member of an immediate family may be employed under the same line of supervision. This does not preclude employment of immediate family members under other lines of supervision.”

Based on the current interpretation, city council is in the line of supervision over police department employees. That’s because city council hires the city manager, who supervises the police chief.

Council could have voted to remove the nepotism clause, but Pratt said he believes Ogburn’s resignation takes care of the issue.

“No one here is saying anyone created this situation on purpose,” said Mayor Mitchell during the meeting. “We look forward to Jessica’s engagement in the future — from a different seat — and we encourage that.”

An ad will now go in the paper for the vacant council seat, and city council will vote amongst themselves from the pool of applicants and select a replacement.

A number of people spoke up, including George Micelli, who said that it’s not easy to find someone like Ogburn to run for council. He questioned whether council couldn’t just amend the nepotism clause and keep her on.

“Norris is a small town, and probably its most precious resource is its volunteerism,” Micelli said. “When you get a young talented person like Jessica who stepped up and said I’m willing to serve, then to have a mentality like this and apparently boot her out, I question whether she had to resign. It’s a shame to have this turn out this way … I’m wondering if that nepotism doctrine shouldn’t be amended to address that issue on serving on council and having someone who is employed with the city.”

Ogburn was the youngest on council and the only new council member since York Haverkamp was elected in 2012. Haverkamp resigned when he and his family moved away nearly two years ago and was replaced with council-appointed Larry Beeman.

Norris resident Ed Stooksbury agreed with Micelli.

“We’ve had a city councilwoman resign because of this, and we have the best police chief right now that we’ve ever had. I feel that this needs to be amended,” he said.

Stooksbury felt that Gabe Hackler should have been able to keep his job as well.

Not everyone felt that the nepotism clause should be abolished, however.

Norris resident and Norris Bulletin publisher Jack Mitchell said that he believed the clause protected the middle man, in this case the city manager. It prevents him from being stuck between a rock and a hard place when he has to go between council and the police department if there were ever any issues.

“Her voice, energy and opinions will be missed and I hope she continues to be engaged,” said Mayor Chris Mitchell in a follow-up email to The Courier News. “

He had been under the impression that the nepotism clause would not apply to council, and that if it did, those impacted would be grandfathered in.

“I do not plan to disappear just because I am no longer on council,” Ogburn’s resignation letter read at the end. “I will still be at every meeting. I will still ask questions, I will still be curious and I will still speak my opinion, it will just be from a different seat in the room.”