County council, mayor at odds over Plankis
Westfield Mayor Andy Cook and Hamilton County Council President Rick McKinney are in a standoff over a nomination for Westfield’s Economic Development Commission.
In January, the county council voted to nominate Ron Thomas for the commission instead of retaining Joe Plankis. Cook declined to confirm the appointment.
“The county council nominated somebody different. I politely said, ‘No, thank you. I’m not going to follow through on your nomination,’” Cook said.
Cook said his preference was and is to retain Plankis, who served as Westfield’s economic development director from 2008 through 2010.
“It came time to renew appointments. I didn’t want to make any changes. He’s serving and serving very well,” Cook said. “He (McKinney) didn’t ask me about it. It was all the sudden.”
In February, the county council decided to stick by its nomination of Thomas, even if it meant the commission was left with only two members.
“In my 18 years on the council it’s never ever been an issue. It’s funny how this has taken on a huge life of its own,” McKinney said, adding the council approved the nomination unanimously, 7-0. “We’ll stick with who we nominated.”
However, the decision to nominate Thomas is being questioned according to e-mails released between council members. It began after Plankis sent a letter to council members because he was upset the council did not approach him to be considered for the nomination. In his e-mail, Plankis also stated that Thomas has “not been a supporter of economic development in Westfield in the past, based on his voting record on the Town Council.”
Plankis declined further comment.
Following Plankis’ letter, county councilor Amy Massillmany wrote to McKinney stating in an e-mail, “I trusted your suggestion however as this unfolds, I believe it was handled in an unprofessional manner and really feel that you misled the council.” Massillamany also wrote that she was interested in moving forward with a nomination for Plankis.
McKinney responded in writing to the council that he found Plankis to be a “self-serving and pompous individual” because he criticized the council for not contacting him. McKinney said Plankis felt he would be automatically reappointed and deserved to be nominated.
“He’s not a person we want to reappoint,” McKinney said while defending Thomas’ nomination as he has served on the Hamilton County Redevelopment Commission for the past two years. “Ron has done nothing to not make us think he was qualified. With Joe it was the very minimal, the most basic. He never asked to be renominated or appointed. We’ve never had a report from him. We didn’t owe that to him.”
McKinney said that the decision to stand by Thomas shows independence.
“If the county council backtracks on this issue, then it will scream loud and clear to all other entities and the public that we have no backbone and are jellyfish,” he stated. “We should be independent because otherwise the statute would say the mayors can appoint three people. It’s an intrusion on our independence.”
Westfield’s Economic Development Commission is comprised of three members – Plankis (county council nominee), Chuck Lehman (Westfield City Council nominee) and Chuck Watson (mayor’s appointee). Each has a four-year term.
“He needs three ‘yes’ people 100 percent behind him,” McKinney said of Cook. “Even if Ron voted against stuff, he’d still win 2-1. That’s still a win for him. He’s really, really blowing this out of proportion.”
Said Cook: “I’m going to do what is best for the City of Westfield. I think that’s exactly why the law is written like it is. With the success we’re having over here, I want to keep my team in place.”
The commission is not overly active and meets infrequently, according to Cook and McKinney.
“Maybe once in the last four years,” McKinney said. “It’s not like it’s a very busy body. … I don’t understand why the mayor is making such a fuss.”
“It’s not all that active, but to me Westfield’s economic development is in high gear right now,” Cook said. “Our economic development is evident by building permits, filings with the plan commission, rise in assessed value last year for the first time since the recession and reduction of the city’s property tax by 4 cents (from 84 cents to 80 cents per $100 assessed value). Why would I want to make any changes in the economic development crew?”
Attorneys from Hamilton County and Westfield have met to discuss the situation. McKinney said attorneys have agreed the council makes the nomination and the mayor approves appointments.
“The sticking point is where do we go from here? If he wants to have a two-person commission so be it. We’ll stay the course with Ron,” McKinney said. “There’s no verbage that he can reject nominations.”
Cook disputes that.
“According to the law, the county council makes a nomination to me. The mayor appoints, the county council does not appoint,” he said. “The county council needs to huddle and renominate. That’s what I’ve asked them to do.”
McKinney said the “mountain out a molehill” issue has become a contested point between the two governing bodies.
“The City of Westfield has asked the county for a lot of help in a lot of issues,” he said. “The mayor is straining relationships by dragging this out. He’s not earning any good will by doing this.”
Cook, however, said he believes he must do his job and not worry about potential political backlash.
“My job is to do what’s best for the city. I don’t think that’s going to upset the county council at all,” he said.