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Cabin worsens rift in Salyersville

SALYERSVILLE — A city council member has been criminally charged with threatening a city employee in an argument over whether city resources were being used in construction of the mayor's cabin outside city limits.

In the end, it turns out, the mayor's father (who is also the previous mayor) had taken the work truck belonging to the mayor's brother (who is also the city water supervisor), on a joy ride.

"There's nothing wrong with it, I don't think. It's just a one-time deal," Mayor Stanley Howard said on Sept. 14 at the city council's monthly meeting when Councilman Jeff Ross questioned him about the incident.

It was a quick, frosty exchange, not on the agenda, that came just after another councilman moved to adjourn the meeting.

A bitter standoff between a family entrenched in city business and a suspicious, rankling political newcomer has been brewing for months.

On Aug. 13, Ross, who has had a fractious relationship with the mayor and other city officials since Ross took office nine months ago, got a tip that city workers were up at the mayor's property at Cave Run Lake. He took his camera and drove up to Leatherwood Road in Menifee County, where the mayor and his wife are building a cabin. Ross parked 100 to 200 yards away and started taking pictures.

That's nothing surprising, said City Clerk Karen Howard, the mayor's wife. Ross is not above having her family watched or followed, she said, and he is convinced that the mayor's relationship with her, the previous mayor and other city employees means there's corruption going on. Ross's animosity with the mayor goes back to the 2006 election when Ross's boss at Prater Drug Store, Tom Frazier, ran a heated mud-slinging campaign against the mayor, Karen Howard said.

Ross doesn't feel right paying the city's bills because he doesn't think the city council has given enough information about them, he said. He voted against the agenda item at Monday's meeting and says the city won't provide records for him to view. That's not true, Karen Howard said — council members are free to look at any record they want, and they can get copies like anyone else in the world — by paying 10 cents each. Ross has become angry with her for asking him to pay the fee for nearly 1,000 copies of city documents he has requested.

So when Ross showed up near the mayor's property, the men hanging around and working there "went to hiding," Ross said. He claims several city workers were there, including the mayor's brother and city water supervisor, Thomas Howard, and city roads worker Larry Carpenter Jr.

Ross didn't get recognizable pictures of anyone but the mayor at the site, and a Herald-Leader reporter couldn't clearly make out the license plate on the truck in the pictures. Nevertheless, when he got back to town, Ross started bragging that he had dirt on them all, Carpenter said.

"I've never been there (to the cabin site); couldn't tell you where it's at," Carpenter said in an interview last week. He said he always follows city policy regarding his work truck — the only time it leaves city limits is when it carries him home at the end of the day. Carpenter says he thinks he was working on city sidewalks that day, and his time cards show that he was paid for a full day. Carpenter said he confronted Ross on Aug. 14, waiting for him out in the street around the corner from City Hall, off city property.

"I've got a right to confront him and say, 'Show me the pictures,'" he said. Carpenter said he and Ross exchanged words, and Ross — who is a good deal taller and bigger than Carpenter — acted as though he didn't know what Carpenter was talking about.

"I'll get you for slander," Carpenter said. And Ross said, "I'll smash you like a bug," according to court records.

That's not quite right, Ross said. Carpenter, also a volunteer deputy sheriff, carries a gun and has no business being afraid of anyone, Ross said. And he said, "You could be squashed like a bug" — squashed in a political sense, not smashed in a physical sense, Ross said.

But the following Monday, Carpenter said he still felt nervous about the argument and decided to go to the county attorney, who charged Ross with misdemeanor terroristic threatening. Ross was summoned to court Aug. 24, and he pleaded not guilty. A no-contact order was issued to both men, and a pre-trial hearing was set for Oct. 26, at which time the case might go to trial, or the charge could be dismissed, County Attorney Greg Allen said.

If found guilty, Ross could be fined or sentenced to up to a year in jail.

The day after Ross was charged, the city water commission held a special meeting and found that Joe Howard, father of Mayor Stanley Howard and of city Water Superintendent Thomas Howard, had hopped into Thomas Howard's city pickup and driven it to the mayor's cabin in Menifee County.

He's in the habit of running things in the city, Stanley Howard said, and forgets that he's not the mayor any more. Stanley Howard said his dad has keys to both his sons' houses, and whenever he gets a notion that he needs something, he just takes it without asking.

In this case, it was the pickup, and he didn't stop to think whether it was the city truck or his son's personal truck — both are the same color, though one is a Chevy and one is a Toyota, he said.

"They look just the same," Stanley Howard said Monday.

(Thomas Howard on Aug. 28 said he didn't know his truck had been driven out of the county. But last week he said he was at the water commission meeting when he was reprimanded and said he wasn't sure how much money should be paid back or if any had been paid.)

Joe Howard was contrite — sort of — after the city council meeting Monday. He wasn't sure of the date, but he took the truck "just to run around," he said. "I got chewed out twice" by the mayor for it, he said.

He was mayor for 17 years. "I've done things I shouldn't have done. I put gravel here and there, I threw away tickets," Joe Howard said. But to be a good mayor, "you've got to show the people that you're spending money right," he said.

Thomas Howard was reprimanded by the water commission for leaving the keys in the truck and allowing his dad to drive it, and Joe Howard was asked to pay the commission 45 cents per mile he drove it, said Commissioner Paul Howard, who is of no relation to the other Howards. Thomas Howard had been written up and asked to repay the mileage once before because he took the truck out of state on vacation recently, Paul Howard said.

Karen Howard said at the meeting Monday that Ross is making too big of a deal out of something that has been handled appropriately by the water commission. Carpenter, who was hired in 2004 by then-Mayor Joe Howard, said he believes in the mayor and council and thinks they do right by the citizens of Salyersville.

But if the culprit had been anyone else in the city besides the mayor's family, Ross said, he would have been fired on the spot.

"They're just thumbing their nose at every taxpayer in town," he said.