Politics & Government

Officials tight-lipped about firing of two Lexington council aides

City officials are being tight-lipped about why two Urban County Council aides were fired last week after a hastily called closed session of the council.

Council budget analyst Jerry Southers and council staff member Vicki Steele were fired Jan. 27 in a 10-5 vote, effective immediately.

In response to a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act for information about any investigation of Southers and Steele, the city provided the Herald-Leader with several months' worth of time-card information for the two employees and documents showing when their electronic identification badges were used to enter and exit the government center.

There was no explanation of what the documents meant, and Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who leads the council, refused to discuss them.

"I can't talk about it," she said. "Most personnel issues are discussed in closed session when an individual person is involved. And we're not allowed to discuss it."

In his written response to the newspaper's request, human resources administrative specialist Daniel H. Fischer said "any handwritten notes" regarding the time sheets and entry/exit logs were exempt from disclosure under the Open Records Act because they are preliminary documents.

Councilman Chris Ford, who voted against the firings, said he thought that dismissing Southers and Steele "was too harsh a punishment for what they did. ... I didn't think it was fair."

Ford said employers have a responsibility to adequately supervise employees.

"I'm not certain that we, the employer, lived up to our obligations," he said. "It's a two-way street."

Councilman Ed Lane, who voted to end the employment of Southers and Steele, said firing them "hurt me," but "I felt we had no choice but to terminate them because they didn't live up to the highest standards."

"Being aides to council, they know all the rules and regulations and work with them day in and day out. That is the key point of this whole matter," Lane said. "Our employees did not perform to the highest standards that we set for all other employees in government. We can't compromise for our own council employees. We have to set an example."

Gorton said she did not know until Jan. 26, the day before Southers and Steele were fired, that there was any problem with their performance or that they were being investigated.

"I heard a rumor from a peer" that the city's law department was going to ask for a closed session, Gorton said.

At the Jan. 27 council meeting, Gorton announced that the council would go into closed session to discuss a personnel issue. The closed session lasted almost 90 minutes.

When the council came out of its closed-door session, Councilman George Myers made a motion to immediately terminate Southers and Steele. Lane seconded the motion. Councilman Doug Martin made a motion, seconded by Councilman Jay McChord, to suspend the council's rules and give the resolution a second reading that night, making it final.

Voting against the firings were Gorton and council members Ford, Julian Beard, Tom Blues and Chuck Ellinger II.

Southers and Steele, who did not respond to requests for comment, did not have civil service protection. They served at the pleasure of the council.

Southers, who has a bachelor of business administration from Marshall University, has been a budget analyst for the city since February 2003. His annual pay was $75,352 as of 2009, the most recent figure that was readily available.

Steele, a graduate of Woodford County High School, was hired by the city in April, 2002. Her annual pay was $52,803 as of 2009.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader