Four more secret sessions, at times reportedly heated and totaling nearly 1½ hours, led to the immediate firing Friday night of Marion city administrator Mark Skiles.
Hired less than five months earlier after a search that cost at least $7,500, Skiles was terminated less than two days before Christmas.
If found to be without formal cause, his firing could end up costing the city more than $50,000 in salary and benefits.
Three key resignations, apparently spurred by the council not acting more swiftly regarding Skiles, reportedly will be allowed to stand so as not to put the city in the position of being dictated to by employees.
How firing happened
As is typical of major council actions, the firing came by the narrowest of margins — on a split 3-2 vote.
Emerging from the final secret session Friday, council member Zach Collect, who initiated the first of the sessions 11 days earlier, moved without discussion to immediately fire Skiles.
The council had met behind closed doors by itself for 45 minutes and then with Skiles for 40 minutes before Collett made his motion.
Mayor David Mayfield asked council member Chris Costello to second Collett’s motion. Costello declined. Mayfield seconded it instead.
Without discussion, Mayfield then polled council members.
When asked, Costello ended up voting with Mayfield and Collett for termination. Jerry Kline and Ruth Herbel voted against firing Skiles.
Upon announcing the vote, Mayfield told Skiles to immediately surrender to police all city credit cards and a city vehicle assigned to him and to be escorted from the building.
Skiles promptly handed over credit cards and car keys but asked whether he might be able to come back after Christmas to check for personal items in his office.
No clear answer was given, but a time later was arranged.
He then asked whether he might obtain a ride home from police officer Duane McCarty, who apparently had been assigned to attend the meeting.
No members of the general public other than a Record reporter were present by this time.
Skiles had driven his city car to work earlier in the day and seemed to have no other way to reach his home, 5.9 miles from the city building at Marion Reservoir’s Eastshore subdivision.
McCarty asked Mayfield whether he could provide the ride. Mayfield nodded affirmatively.
Herbel also offered: “Mark, I’ll give you a ride home.”
Skiles replied: “That’s OK, Ruth. I appreciate you.”
At that point, Skiles quietly exited the room, turning to tell council members as he walked out: “Merry Christmas, folks.”
Although the reason for the secret sessions never was announced publicly, the sessions Friday were the third through sixth conducted by the council about Skiles in the past two weeks.
Two other half-hour sessions — one with city attorney Brian Bina, who rarely appears at council meetings, and one with just the council — were conducted under unusual security Dec. 12.
The same unusual security was present Friday, when once again a Record reporter — along with Skiles, McCarty, police chief Clinton Jeffery, and city clerk Tiffany Jeffrey — were asked to relocate two rooms away instead of the normal one room away to prevent any possibility of overhearing discussions or reading lips and observing gestures through windows.
Collett’s motion to fire Skiles did not state whether Skiles was being fired for cause or not.
Under Skiles’s employment contract, approved by the council July 11, Skiles will be owed six months’ salary — $50,000 — plus nine months’ benefits if terminated without cause.
Cause is defined in the contract as fraudulent or dishonest conduct, conviction of a felony or of a crime involving moral turpitude, or failure to comply with obligations under the agreement.
Skiles has not been charged with much less convicted of a crime. Reached after his firing Friday night, he declined to comment.
A council member present during the secret sessions told the Record that whether the city might owe Skiles money was never discussed in any of the sessions.
Objection to secrecy
The Record formally objected both Dec. 12 and Friday to the manner in which the secret sessions were convened.
The city provided only a justification for closing the meetings but did not provide a “short, plain statement” of the subjects to be discussed, as required under Kansas Attorney General Opinion 2018-01.
“Failing to give more details than listing the justifications in the statute violates Kansas Open Meetings Act,” media lawyer Max Kautsch, who represents the Sunshine Coalition and Kansas Press Association, said after the initial secret session. “That requirement was instituted for the exact reason you are concerned: to increase transparency surrounding executive sessions.”
The Record will refer the matter to the attorney general’s office for possible prosecution.
Other officials' resignations
Also not officially answered after Friday’s firing was what might happen to the resignations, tended last week by chief Clinton Jeffery and clerk Tiffany Jeffrey, who are married, and assistant chief Steven Janzen.
They reportedly resigned — the officers, effective Tuesday, and the clerk a week later — because the council failed to act to discipline Skiles last week.
Their resignations never have been acknowledged at any public council meeting. They were confirmed only by the individuals themselves or by statements from county officials about how the sheriff’s office would cover over for the sudden departure of two of the city’s four police officers. A fifth position was vacated a few weeks earlier by canine handler Aaron Slater’s transfer to the sheriff’s department.
Under law, resignations are neither accepted nor rejected; they are final when issued by a person holding a job. It’s unclear whether rescinding a resignation would allow an office holder to return to his or her previous position without being re-confirmed by the council.
State law in no way limits council members from disclosing what might go on behind closed doors in an executive session.
Reasons for Skiles's firing
Members who voted against terminating Skiles both indicated last week that they thought the case against him did not merit termination.
After the meeting Friday, one of them, council member Herbel, disclosed to the Record that the key allegation against Skiles was that he had committed what was characterized as an act of sexual harassment.
Herbel said Skiles was accused of showing to city treasurer Becky Makovec a photograph of a professional model using the stage name Blair Daniels, whom he identified to Makovec as downtown Marion merchant Chelsea Mackey.
Mackey’s business, Dawn’s Day Spa, has been embroiled in a dispute with the city over a sign it installed that violates regulations by hanging over a downtown sidewalk instead of being flat against the store’s outside wall. Collett has been a champion of changing city rules to allow Mackey’s sign.
According to Herbel, Makovec reported that she was not offended by the photo but felt uncomfortable seeing it. Makovec was not among the officials resigning.
The photo, which was not shown to the council, reportedly showed a person clad in lingerie. It is unclear whether the photo was one of the tamer items from a risqué website that includes more revealing photos.
According to Herbel, Makovec reported that she was not offended by the photo but was made to feel uncomfortable.
Skiles, a Southerner, also faced written allegations, Herbel said, from two other city employees, including an allegation that he three times had used the so-called “n”-word — once, as a figure of speech, as in the title of a 1904 movie, “N----- in the Woodpile,” referring to something somehow being “off”; once in reference to Arabs being “sand n-----s”; and once using just the “n”-word.
Other allegations, according to Herbel, included that he once lost his temper with a city employee in front of a customer; that he inquired of community enrichment director Margo Yates as to her age, retirement plans, and disability; that he secretly asked city employees probing questions without consulting their supervisors; that he was trying to “break down city employees to see what they were capable of”; and that he was more likely to “ask forgiveness than permission.”
Herbel said Mayfield read to council members from statements supplied by three city employees but did not allow council members to see the statements themselves.
In all, nine allegations reportedly were presented. There also reportedly were questions about procedures followed in obtaining additional borrowing for a power line upgrade project.
Discord among council members
Herbel characterized the allegations as an attempt to undermine Skiles in much the same manner that she said employees used in trying to undermine Skiles’s predecessor, Roger Holter, when Holter arrived on the job.
Herbel said she told council members that resignations of city employees could have been avoided if proper procedures had been followed and city workers had not been “pressured” into making complaints.
She said Collett objected, swore at her, and contended that if Holter, who retired last summer, were still around, Herbel “would be history.”
Administrators and council members do not have the power to discipline or remove other council members. Only voters possess that right.
The meeting, originally scheduled for Monday night, was delayed until Friday because Mayfield was hospitalized. A 3-2 vote Friday might have deadlocked at 2-2 if the meeting had been conducted without Mayfield on Monday.
No council member other than Herbel could be reached for comment Friday night.