Fairhope Financial Advisory Committee at standstill

Committee suspends agenda following email from mayor regarding budget, access to information


Fairhope’s Financial Advisory Committee is currently at a standstill, as FAC Chairman Chuck Zunk said recent actions taken by Mayor Karin Wilson could make it difficult, if not impossible, for his committee to continue its work.

Zunk and the other FAC members said they felt a recent email from Wilson regarding the fiscal year 2019 budget told them that she did not want the committee to be a part of the budget development process and that access to information from city staff members would likely be lessened.

May 10 Financial Advisory Committee meeting

During the May 10, Fairhope Financial Advisory Committee meeting, Zunk laid out what he felt was the way in which Wilson’s actions hindered the committee from being able to be active and effective.

“We were handicapped by coming to the party late, but in going through that review process, I think we all agreed, as far as I knew everybody from the city staff and the city council agreed, that for the preparation of the fiscal year 2019 budget that the committee would try to involve itself earlier,” Zunk said.

Zunk said another reason for the committee to be involved early is that there were some material errors in the preparation of the 2018 budget.

“I’ll call them math errors,” Zunk said. “They were more complicated than that, but errors nevertheless. I’m not saying we would have caught them all had we been involved earlier, but there may have been an opportunity to head some of that off. We have a lot of years of experience between all of us doing that - I think that would have made a difference.”

Zunk said he believed he would have been in touch with Wilson about the scheduling for the budget talks and that he would meet with her and Budget Director Jill Cabiness to get involved in the process, but said Wilson contacted him via email on April 24 with a different plan.

In the April 24 email, Wilson wrote the following to Zunk:

Jill and I have transformed the budget process and this year we are tweaking the process even more.  At our last supervisor meeting, we went over the attached timeline  and also discussed this during the Director Roundtable last night. While I appreciate all the help I can get, the Finance Advisory Committee’s primary purpose is to assist and  make recommendations to the city council.  This is my third budget cycle and a great deal of time, thought and planning has gone into it.  Attached is our schedule, which ties in citizen input, all department presentations made subsequent to the distribution of the budget book, as well as the time when council and the finance committee will receive a draft copy of the budget.

“The formation and presentation of the budget to the city council  is ultimately my responsibility. I need to balance this responsibility with the need to schedule additional meetings that will take my and my staff’s attention away from our day to-day responsibilities.  That said, we hope to have the draft budget to y’all by July 6th and at this time I am open to meet with the committee so you can better communicate and advise council.

“I’m also open to meet with the committee on big picture items like the overall department structures as they relate to like municipalities.  But it is important that the committee understands its role so it doesn’t confuse city employees.  As you may know, I gave the attached memo to city employees because the daily interference from council was making it very difficult for me to do my job effectively.  I know the different boards and committees want to help and I will reach out to you and the committee if we need help or input on the budget process.

“Also, for future FAC meetings, please let me know at least two weeks in advance if you wish to have a city employee present at a FAC meeting so we can prepare accordingly. As you are aware, we are seriously understaffed and past meetings have been taking time from their work.”

Zunk said, in his words, he felt the mayor was attempting to not have the Financial Advisory Committee be involved in the process at all.

“As far as I can tell, the mayor has changed her position on the budget preparation, and my impression of the contents of her email is that she wants us to butt out and not be involved at all,” Zunk said. “When they finish it, she’ll distribute it to us and with six days of review, she expects us to be able to discuss it at the July meeting.”

“It was very clear from my reading of the email, heretofore all the other things we’ve been involved in - the review of the 2018 budget, the discussion of the police jurisdiction issue, and then beginning to discuss the improvements we all felt could be made in the purchasing policies and procedures - I could have described the participation of the mayor and her staff as if not collaborative, then at least cooperative,” Zunk said. “And the mayor has made it very clear that is at an end. Our access to direct information from anybody except her - she’s put so much restriction on it that it doesn’t really exist any more. We can only get information from her, and only when she’s good and ready to give it to us.”

Zunk said he felt those actions put the committee in a “completely untenable position” and said the reasons Wilson stated for denying access to the committee were, in his words, “trivial.”

“I don’t think they justify the actions she has taken,” Zunk said. “She didn’t have to give the reasons, but haven given them, my opinion of them are that they are foolish.”

The other committee members present also expressed concerns about Wilson possibly denying them access to information and removing them from the budgeting process.

“She made comment to me … that now that she’s been through the preparation of two budgets, she’s an expert, that she doesn’t need anybody’s opinion,” Zunk said. “Well, I guess the 120-some years of experience that the four of us have doesn’t mean jack to the two years of experience that she has. That’s her attitude. It seems to me that if that’s her attitude, we’re kind of swimming upstream.”

The members voted to suspend consideration of all active projects before them until Zunk could address the city council with their concerns.

Email to the city council

Prior to the May 15 meeting, Zunk emailed the city council members with his committee’s concerns.

The email states:

“This is to inform you that at the May 10th meeting of the Financial Analysis Committee we suspended consideration of all active projects, pending discussion with City Council.  I will attend Tuesday night's City Council Workshop if you wish to discuss this during Committee Updates, or if it is more convenient for you I can defer until your meeting on May 28th.

“Here's the background of our decision...

“The three active projects of FAC up until our May meeting had been 1) preparation for engagement on the FY2019 Annual Budget; 2) reconciliation of funding requirements and funding sources for the major ($20+ million) capital improvement projects of the four utilities; and 3) working with City staff to improve the purchasing policies and procedures.  FAC had previously completed two other projects with reports to City Council, namely the review of the FY2018 Annual Budget and a review of the economics of shrinking the Police Jurisdiction.

“Prior to the recent May meeting of FAC we received an email from the Mayor (attached) that changed the ground rules on our ability to gather facts from the Mayor and City Staff.  Although the email was written with specific reference to the project of preparing for the FY2019 Budget, it seemed to us to apply to all of our projects.  Our interpretation of the email was that 1) it changed the relationship between FAC and City Staff from collaborative and cooperative to adversarial; and 2) it restricted our access to acquiring facts from City Staff so much as to be essentially cut off.  Under those circumstances we are unable to function.”

May 15 Fairhope Council meeting

During council comments at the May 15 Fairhope City Council meeting, Councilman Robert Brown, council liaison to the committee, asked Zunk to step forward and voice his concerns, namely Wilson’s email to him.

“Our interpretation of the email was that: No. 1 - it changed the relationship between the committee and city staff from collaborative and cooperative, which it had been up until that point, to adversarial; and No. 2 - it restricted our access to acquiring facts from city staff, so much as to be essentially cut off,” Zunk said. “Under those circumstances, we are unable to function as you had requested and so we suspended consideration of all of our active projects, pending discussion with city council.”

Zunk asked for more guidance from city council on the issue, which Brown addressed.

“It’s unfortunate the direction that it has turned,” Brown said. “I understand the frustration of the committee. It’s a committee of retired CEOs and bankers with over 100 years of business experience of managing multi-million dollar companies and they’re volunteering their time to help give council guidance on the best way to fund some of these major projects we have coming up on the horizon, and they’ve been shut out on trying to get information to help guide the council on some of those decisions. Hopefully, we can get things straightened out. We’re not trying to be political with it - we’re just trying to get the facts so that we can make informed decisions for the city.”

Zunk said he, too, hoped to be able to find a solution that would be helpful for the city, but said he was concerned about the mayor’s potential plan that would only give the committee six days to review the budget once it was drafted.

Council President Jack Burrell suggested that Zunk and the committee call a special called public meeting so the council could come and try to figure out solutions to address the issues and concerns before the committee.

“We do appreciate your service,” Burrell said. “We do value your opinion. I hope we will come up with a solution to this to keep you intact and keep you on board.”

Mayoral response

In an April 29 email to Zunk Wilson sent the Courier, she elaborates her position further.

“We all want to work together for resolutions to move the city forward,” Wilson wrote. “I would like to count on this committee to communicate (advice) the objectives and financial priorities. This is the real disconnect. The administration doesn’t need to be advised - we’re doing our jobs.”

In a phone conversation with The Courier on May 21, Wilson said she felt her April 24 email was “pretty self-explanatory,” but added she has continually tried to cooperate and work with the Financial Advisory Committee.

“I have met with individual committee members in addition to going to most all of their meetings to give them information so that they can effectively counsel the city council,” Wilson said, adding that she had to weigh the amount of time meeting with the committee was taking versus she and her staff being able to do the city’s business.

Wilson said she felt there might be some misunderstanding about what the committee’s true aim might be.

“I think they are confusing their role about being an advisor to the council versus an advisor to the administration,” Wilson said.

With regards to the 2019 budget, Wilson said she felt she and her staff were more than able to create that budget on their own.

“I don’t need advice there,” Wilson said. “What I need is help communicating with the council. I’ve always made myself available and want to find ways to make this a better process.”