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Budget approval process, clerk’s administrative leave hot topics during Adrian council meeting

Adrian City Council had a lengthy meeting last Monday night. During the almost 90-minute session, two topics—the approval process of the 2021 budget as well as the city clerk’s administrative leave—were discussed. In the end, council voted to approve the budget and the clerk remains suspended.

Although the budget discussion and the discussion of the clerk’s suspension might seem separate from one another, the two went somewhat hand-in-hand during the January 11 meeting. Council entered executive session early in the meeting. After returning to open session, Mayor Wynola Smith asked for a motion to vote on the finalized budget with amendments as needed. The discussion from this point forward evolved from bonuses in the budget and how those bonuses affect the suspended clerk to the legality of moving onward with the budget’s approval to the suspension itself.

At the mayor’s request, Suzanne Hutchinson motioned to approve the budget. Before a second took place, Ed Brown questioned the process used to select which city employees would receive bonuses in the new budget, if approved. Specifically, he asked if clerk Stephanie Jean, who has been on leave since early November as the GBI conducts a formal investigation, would be among those counted for a bonus. (Jean has not been fired and is still drawing a regular paycheck.)

According to Smith, Jean was not among those who would receive a bonus because her name wasn’t on the list of people considered the night council reviewed potential recipients. Brown then questioned the fairness of the allocation of bonuses, offering his take that all city employees should receive this benefit, to which Smith responded by saying council never stipulated that all city employees would receive a bonus—but council had previously selected these individuals and narrowed down what account their respective bonuses would be taken from. Brown reiterated his disagreement with the matter, vying that Jean should receive a bonus as well, and asked about the status of the investigation. The mayor confirmed the investigation to be ongoing and stated there were some things that would be “going to a different level very shortly.”

At this point, in response to Hutchinson’s motion, Jesse Yawn asked the mayor if council had to hold a public hearing before approving the budget. Smith said, “From all the information we gathered, we did not.” The mayor further explained that council had met all the requirements she understood to exist, which included: publishing the proposed budget in the county’s legal organ and having another meeting. Yawn, after clarifying that proper procedures had been followed, gave the second. The vote fell 4-1 with Hutchinson, Yawn, Michelle Love, and Julie Griffin voting in favor and Brown opposing.

The City of Adrian is currently being audited. The only time the audit is addressed in minutes dating back to July is in the December minutes, which, specifically under New Business, read, “Budget: The Mayor stated that the city would be using the budget from the previous year due to the investigation and the audit not being able to be completed. The auditor suggested the idea and the council will be able to amend the budget as needed.”

The Chronicle reached out to Smith Wednesday, January 13, via phone call to ask for clarity about the matter, specifically asking for the name of the auditor and/or the audit company who suggested this to confirm the suggestion and legality of the process. At the time of that phone call, Smith was able to recall on short notice that the company was based out of Canton but nothing further. That phone call was followed up with an informal email request for the same information; said email, as of press time, had not been returned.

Following the 4-1 vote on the budget, before moving on to new business, Brown pushed for information about the GBI’s investigation. Among his numerous specific inquiries were questions about: the origin of the GBI’s involvement; the duration of the investigation and why no findings have been reported yet; the people involved in the investigation; the possibility of the clerk returning to work; and the availability of surveillance footage.

The Chronicle, in an attempt to gain background on the GBI’s current involvement in Adrian and the clerk’s being put on administrative leave with pay, reached out to Smith for information. In short, the mayor cited alleged “misappropriating funds,” but she ultimately deferred to the GBI so as not to potentially disturb the investigation’s integrity. The Chronicle also reached out to Jean, who offered little on the same grounds. The clerk did, however, say she and Smith have had a troubled history since the beginning of the mayor’s tenure.

From the best information available at this time, the GBI arrived in Adrian to question Jean on November 3. The mayor suspended her November 6. According to the November minutes, former councilperson Zelda Sumner motioned for Jean to “stay on leave of absence” until the investigation ended. The minutes continue, “Motion seconded by CM Yawn. Motion carried by CM brown and CM Love. CM Yawn voted against the motion. Motion passed in a 4-1 vote.” According to those same November minutes, council had entered executive session and returned to open session immediately prior to the vote.

Council revisited the issue last month. December minutes reflect that Hutchinson, concerning executive session, “made a motion to put Clerk Jean on leave without pay for the remainder of the investigation. CM ZSumner seconded the motion. CM Love, CM Brown, and CM Yawn voted against the motion.”

The Chronicle obtained contact information for Kendall Reece, the GBI agent over the investigation, for information available to be shared at this time. No attempts of correspondence had been returned as of press time. However, this investigation is ongoing, and The Chronicle will provide updates as they become available.

Jean became city clerk in Adrian in 2018. Deputy clerk Felicia Owen is acting as city clerk in Jean’s absence.

An overview of the meeting’s other business can be found elsewhere in this edition of The Crossroads Chronicle.

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