By Seth Littrell
Register News Writer
The way Berea City Council committees have been created in recent years does not conform to state law, council members were told Wednesday.
The council met in a special work session, rescheduled from Tuesday, to discuss former City Attorney J.T. Gilbert’s opinion that committees appointed by mayors in mayor-council governments violates the separation of powers as defined by state law.
At a previous meeting, Council member Virgil Burnside asked Gilbert whether the Audit and Finance Committee, which he chairs, is a valid entity because it has three members rather than the four specified by the city’s ordinance.
The committee was created by Mayor Steve Connelly, who said he preferred three members for practicality as it prevents a tie vote.
In his research, Gilbert found the committee failed to meet legal requirements, but not for the reason Burnside suggested. Only the legislative branch of government (the council) has the authority to create standing committees, City Administrator Randy Stone said, relaying Gilbert’s opinion. The executive branch, (the mayor) may create only short-term committees for projects or investigations, such as the recently established committee drafting changes to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.
The separation of powers doctrine was revised in the 1980s, Stone continued. Before that, committees could be appointed by the mayor, and the current council was unaware the law had change.
“We (the city government when the change was made) kept the old system illegally,” said Stone, once a council member. “It worked, but now we’ve been legally advised that we need to change.”
Because the old ordinance must be replaced, the council has the opportunity to decide how many, if any, standing committees it wants, and what functions they should serve, Stone said. However, the discussion led to some disagreement among council members.
In an initial draft of a new committee ordinance, Burnside and Stone listed Audit and Finance, Public Works and Recreation (parks) as standing committees.
Burnside said he was open to suggestions, but he believes at least those three are needed.
Council Member Jerry Little said he thought a personnel committee should be created as well. Berea had such a committee in the past, he said. It conducted interviews with finalists for city jobs and advised department heads on its preference.
The personnel committee also kept the council informed on how many people the city had employed.
Council member Billy Wagers said he served on the personnel committee when it existed, and concluded its wasn’t worthwhile.
“I’m not qualified to promote a policeman or fireman,” Wagers said. “That’s at the recommendation of the chief. I thought that the committee wasn’t worth it.”
Council member Diane Kerby asked if there should be any committees except Audit and Finance. The finance committee is the only one functioning now, and Burnside said he tries keep all council members informed of its work.
Whether the council decides to create new standing committees, it must first create a new authorizing ordinance that conforms to state law. The council will conduct another work session on the issue before its next regular meeting.
After the work session, the council convened for a brief regular session, also rescheduled from Tuesday because of inclement weather.
Stone disclosed issues suggested by city employees for the council’s consideration. These included an alcohol referendum, public parking, utilities concerns and changes to the city’s website.
The council also appointed Katherine Berry to fill a vacancy on the Planning and Zoning Board and reappointed Sundae Park to the Madison County Ambulance Board.
Seth Littrell can be reached at email@example.com or 624-6623.