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Ethics panel hears charges against mayor

DANVILLE — The Danville Board of Ethics heard testimony on allegations that Mayor Hugh Coomer acted beyond his authority as provided by law in the city manager plan of government.

Four of the seven counts brought by the Danville City Commission in June were considered during a three-hour formal hearing at city hall.

The first count heard Monday alleges that Coomer directed City Engineer Earl Coffey to ignore the unanimous vote of the city commission to demolish a former concession building at Cowan Street Park.

Under Danville's form of government, all executive and legislative powers are vested in and are exercised by the city commission. The mayor presides over commission meetings, but day-to-day supervision of city departments and employees rests with the city manager.

Coomer testified that the request to halt demolition of the building “was merely a suggestion” because he wanted to hear from area residents about their ideas for the park.

“I don't really see that I was particularly out of line with a suggestion, because it wasn't a direct order,” Coomer said under oath. “But I'm sorry it's caused this much trouble for everybody.”

Coomer also testified: “I didn't tell the city engineer not to tear it down. I told him to hold up.”

But Coffey, who reports to City Manager Paul Stansbury, said “it was kind of an awkward situation” to be placed between the commission and Coomer. The building was torn down in December.

And Stansbury testified that such a situation “certainly impacts my ability to direct staff.” And he testified, “I would have preferred the interference had not occurred.”

Stansbury testified on another allegation that Coomer conducted interviews with candidates for city manager and police chief outside the adopted hiring procedures of the city commission.

Stansbury testified that he has knowledge about this because it happened while Stansbury was an interim city manager who had been expressly told by the commission that he could not be a candidate for city manager. That sanction was later lifted during a subsequent round of interviews, and Stansbury was hired as city manager.

But before the sanction was lifted, Stansbury said Coomer “approached me and offered me the position.”

“He said he could make it happen,” Stansbury testified. “I told him that I thought that communication was inappropriate.” Stansbury reported the matter to the city's human resources manager.

Coomer responded that “rules are made to be broken,” Stansbury testified.

Appointment log books indicate that Coomer met with three candidates for police chief. Stansbury said he didn't know what was said during those meetings, but he said such communications taint the hiring process because it raises questions of fairness and whether any particular candidate had an unfair advantage.

Another allegation is that Coomer, without authority from the commission, signed a letter of intent to apply for $500,000 in grant funds on behalf of Pioneer Playhouse. The money was to be used for historic preservation.

But the commission had only authorized a letter of intent to seek grant funds for street improvements. The state Transportation Cabinet eventually rejected the grant for Pioneer Playhouse. City officials have not heard yet whether the grant for street improvements has been approved.

Another count alleged that Coomer interfered with streetscape work at the corner of Second and Main streets and that this interference caused the work to be done differently from what plans specified. The allegation also said the mayor's communication caused the contractor to leave the job.

Coomer said he had words with contractor Don Davis after he thought Davis had been rude to a local businesswoman.

“I mainly said, ‘I'm Hugh Coomer, I'm the mayor,'” Coomer testified. “‘I would appreciate it if you would show some courtesy to our citizens. We have to take care of our businesses.' Period. I turned around and left.”

Contractor Don Davis testified that the specifics of the street work were changed by an architect and not because of anything the mayor said.

And “I didn't leave the job on account of” the mayor's comments, Davis testified.

The board took no action on the allegations, and it's unknown when it will meet again to consider the three other counts.

Three other charges were dismissed by the ethics board on July 2. Two counts involved alleged incidents that happened more than a year ago and were thus beyond a one-year statute of limitations.

The board dismissed on July 2 a charge that Coomer attempted to influence the appointments of two members of the ethics board. Neither of the two that Coomer submitted was appointed to the board.

Once the ethics board has heard evidence on all counts, it has 30 days to issue a decision.

If the board finds that Coomer violated the code of ethics, it has a range of penalties to impose. It could issue a “cease and desist” order or issue a public reprimand. It could recommend discipline or removal from office, or issue a civil penalty of $1,000.

If evidence warrants, the board could also refer matters for criminal prosecution.