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Sticky Millbrook issue

Politics can be tricky — so can running a town or village with the public’s approval. The village of Millbrook is experiencing some headaches trying to do so right now, as it goes through the growing pains of a new administration.

Mayor Rodney Brown — the former trustee-cum-treasurer-cum-mayor — has been brought to task for a couple of reasons. 

For one, the board hired Village Clerk Sarah Witt as the village treasurer. For two, it’s running meetings differently, making the community jump through hoops to participate.

Former Village Trustee Tim Collopy has brought both issues to the fore. He’s asked Brown for an explanation.

In a nutshell, the issue regarding Witt has to do with her hiring. According to Collopy, when he asked who was under consideration for the position in November 2016 and then again in December, the board said it was considering a number of prospects but had made no decision. Come Jan. 3, at the village’s reorganization meeting, the decision was apparently finalized — with no public conversation.

The mayor explained the situation by saying Witt was the most qualified to do the job. She had already done portions of the job in her role as deputy village clerk and was well acquainted with the treasurer’s duties. 

Collopy also questioned the actual hiring of Witt, done at that Jan. 3 meeting. He claimed the trustees weren’t sworn into office themselves when they hired Witt in an executive session. That would make their hire illegal and void. 

Brown said the original agenda, which indicated the order of business, was erroneous, and that everything was done in proper order at the reorg meeting.

A side issue, that Witt’s husband, Jared, was appointed as a full-time police officer and as a result she will be issuing his paychecks, also arose. According to village code, such ties should be avoided due to concerns of nepotism.

The Village Board defended its position, saying Witt only signs the checks; she doesn’t set pay rates. Also, explained Brown, it’s the board itself, and not the treasurer, that spends and collects tax dollars. Lastly, the board said, it may hire a new bookkeeper in the future, to take over some of those duties.

The board is probably right — Witt was likely the most qualified candidate for treasurer. But the process should have been followed to a T, if for no other reason than to set the public’s mind at ease. There is a trust issue here, and appearances count. Otherwise, why would the board already be looking to bring in someone else to help out? Clearly, not everyone is comfortable with a wife cutting village checks to pay her husband.

There are also concerns about community input at meetings. The board banned public participation during the first meeting of the month. Only during the second monthly meeting can the public comment — on agenda items only, which have to be submitted by the public in advance.

Mayor Brown argues that without such regulations, mayhem can rule. He also said there’s no requirement the public be allowed to speak in the Open Meetings Law.

That’s true, but it doesn’t seem like a good way to foster public participation, already suffering from a lack of interest in most municipalities. Our boards should be making it easier, not harder, for people to share their concerns and express their opinions.

Transparency should be a top priority for all branches of government in our country, no less so on the local level. While we agree it’s fair to give the Village Board a chance to see if its new approach works, we are concerned. The possibility that it will stifle the public’s voice is very real, and the mayor and his board are treading on dangerous ground.

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