HUBER HEIGHTS — Monday night, Huber Heights Mayor Thomas McMasters explained his actions for not signing off on a travel request for three Council members after being criticized by two area leaders during citizen comments. McMasters did not sign travel requests submitted by Judy Blankenship, Lu Dale and Jan Vargo to attend a conference in Nashville, Tenn. on Nov. 3-7 hosted by the National League of Cities.
McMasters said he had attended the Parks & Recreation Committee meeting on Thursday night and that they talked about wanting to prioritize some of the expenditures for the next year and talked about their $60,000 budget for this year. He said after he left that meeting, he then examined items needing his signature which included travel requests by Council members and one member of staff.
He said he made calculations in his head and said that was 10 percent of the Parks & Recreation budget and asked himself which was more important—a meeting or surfacing a basketball court or upgrading the website so that people know what events the city offers, or holding a tennis tournament.
“I said, to me, parks and rec is more important,” explained McMasters. “So, I didn’t sign that legislation and since we had cancelled the Admin (Administrative) Committee, I figured that was a good opportunity to have discussion with Council and see what our priorities are—the same or not the same. So, I scheduled that for 5:30, a half hour earlier than the Admin always starts…The meeting was Mr. Starline and I, so that discussion didn’t happen.
“And that’s where we are…I don’t think that it’s a huge issue that needs headlining news in the paper, so it makes good reading for people that the mayor’s fighting with Council, but Council members weren’t there on Tuesday night to have the discussion, then that discussion doesn’t happen—but my position still hasn’t changed and that I think we need a priority discussion and some day that will happen…”
Rap Hankins, representing the National League of Cities, who is a member of the City Council in Trotwood, was invited to the meeting by Council member Jan Vargo to educate Council and the public. He was a part member of the board of National League of Cities. He is also the regional representative for First Tier Suburb Consortium. During citizen comments, Hankins thanked Council and staff for everything they do for the region.
“I’m a firm believer that good elected officials are not born, good elected officials are made,” said Hankins.
Hankins said that in recent years, Huber Heights, like the rest of the region, have taken severe financial cuts from the state and that the Ohio Municipal League has led the fight against these attacks, an example of which was House Bill 5. He said the situation Huber is facing today is not a manifestation of bad government, but a manifestation of bad government in Columbus. He invited Mayor McMasters and Council to the Ohio Municipal League meeting on Oct. 21-23 in Columbus. He said this is important because there will be local elected officials from across the state “talking about what local government needs and how we begin to organize and fight to protect home rule.” He said the only way these issues get addressed is by coming together as a group.
He then said that the National League of Cities is made up of 2200 cities, towns and villages.
“As the chairman of the NLC University, my job is to make sure that local elected officials, when they visit Washington or they visit off site, that they get the best educational opportunities possible…so that when they come home, they will be able to share information with the mayor and with their citizens and other Council members…And I believe that when you’re an elected official, you want to deal with the best organization in the world—and that’s the National League of Cities.”
Hankins then outlined three major roles of the National League of Cities in effecting change to move cities forward.
“I would think that it’s very important that I explain to you that when we travel to places, we have a major agenda over looking at issues as a non-partisan individual and moving our cities forward,” he said.
Derrick L. Forward, President of the Dayton Unit, NAACP, also addressed the travel issue. He said his organization had received a formal complaint from a citizen of Huber Heights related to a budget item. He said there was one black woman and two white women who are being denied to go to a conference “that would enhance their educational opportunities to help better the community.”
“It’s very disturbing what we’ve been reading inside of the newspaper, but then to get a formal complaint, to come to our office because citizens are tired of what is happening because of politics inside of this city of Huber Heights,” said Forward. “So my charge from the NAACP is to say to the leadership, to the mayor, you’re the leader of the community. It’s time now to work with the people in leadership—come together, build some bridges, instead of having all of this infighting that people are seeing inside of our community…
“For all the positive things that are happening inside of this community, to deny somebody the right to go get educated, to help enhance the overall picture of this community, is absurd and absurd to the point, Mr. Mayor, that these are budgeted items. Those dollars cannot be used for anything else, if I read the spread sheet right…The complaint also alleges there was a white male that was allowed to go to some other event here recently. And now you have three women, one black woman and two white women, who are being denied.”
Forward said he hopes that Council can “work together for the betterment of this community.”
“My hope is that you as the leader, Mayor Tom McMasters, you as the leader of the Council and of this city, along with your teammates, because teamwork makes the dream work,” added Forward. “You can’t get nothing accomplished if there’s constant division. And the common denominator that I’m seeing in reading the newspaper, is our mayor here in Huber Heights…My hope is that you will all find a way, with you leading the team…to come together, let these ladies go to this training that all of us deserve. Any time we can get additional training to help better ourselves or the quality of life for our residents, to me, that should be a no-brainer, especially when those line items are occuring in the budget.”
Council member Karen Kaleps thanked Hankins for coming to Council and clarifying the role of the National League of Cities. Kaleps said she had traveled to a number of these. She cited the “Playful City U.S.A.” information brought back from a meeting she thought was in San Antonio. She said it was a great opportunity to learn “with a model in front of you” on how you can make your parks and amenities more active, involving more people.
“This is a good model to go by and if offers knowledge and the basis for securing grants even,” said Kaleps.
Council member Tracy Dudley thanked Hankins for speaking. She said it was a pleasure to have a neighboring city come collaborate in this process. Dudley also said she had a phone call from the Vice Mayor Bruce Duke of Kettering. She said he was very passionate about the National League of Cities because of the difference they make and said the priceless contributions they make isn’t just about a commitment to attend conferences, but they are part of subcommittee groups and the value they put forth to go in front of Congress “to share the local government voice” as a result of the membership participation.
“We can talk about it all day long amongst each other, but when it comes down to it we need to share our voice with people who actually represent us,” added Dudley.
Dudley then cited the following quote from Duke: “In order for our city (Kettering) to continue to grow and be connected to local, regional and national endeavors, I think it’s important that I’m a part of it because it makes our city vibrant and brilliant.” Dudley said this applies not only just for Kettering, but for all cities, townships and local government, including Huber Heights.
Council member Blankenship told the Courier that she was surprised when she learned of McMaster’ decision “because it’s allowed in our charter to go to these things. We’ve been doing it and it’s in the budget. So I was surprised that this came up.”
Blankenship said she sent McMasters an email at the time asking if he was referring to this year’s budget or next year’s budget.
“When I see him approving and signing checks, he approves that the check is being written correctly,” said Blankenship. “…That’s how I understand it and so, that’s where I bet the confusion lies that he thinks he has the authority to tell us we can or cannot go and I don’t see that. I have to wait and see what happens. I’m all for talking about it in next year’s budget…I’m just totally mystified by it.”
Blankenship said the early bird registration fee for the conference is $745 which includes some of the meals. According to Clerk of Council Tony Rodgers, if participants register prior to July 31, there is a savings of $110 off of each registration.
“This is allowed,” said Blankenship. “Until Council changes it and decides we don’t want to have travel, then at that time fine. That’s a discussion we haven’t had yet. And for him to just arbitrarily do this, I was just surprised…”
Reach Greg Smart at 937-236-4990, ext. 2542 or on Twitter @HH_Courier.com