During a Feb. 6 work session, city leaders learned it was time to fill another vacant Princeton Public Utilities Commission position.
Former PUC Chair and current Commissioner Mindi Siercks had provided written notification that she was resigning.
Siercks stated it was her intention to resign effective March 31, 2020, or sooner if a replacement could be approved.
Mayor Brad Schumacher suggested Councilor Jenny Gerold, who also serves as current PUC liaison, finish Siercks’ term in an interim capacity, serving from April 1, 2020, through Dec. 31, 2020.
Schumacher cited city ordinance, which states one council member can serve on the PUC.
During the work session, Schumacher’s motion to appoint Gerold to finish Sirecks’ term passed 3-2, with Councilor Jeff Reynolds seconding.
Councilor Jack Edmonds and Councilor Jules Zimmer voted against the motion.
The council’s decision to appoint Gerold didn’t sit well with prior PUC applicant Richard Schwartz, who spoke during open forum Feb. 13.
Schwartz asked that the council place discussion of Gerold’s interim PUC appointment on its March 5 work session agenda.
It didn’t take long before sparks were flying between Schumacher and Schwartz when the agenda item was finally discussed. Prior to the meeting, Schwartz had emailed council members a series of questions that he wanted addressed.
Councilor Jules Zimmer, who was serving as acting mayor at the Feb. 13 meeting stated that the council previously concurred it would be best to have all its members present to discuss Schwartz’s concerns.
“That’s why it’s on our work session agenda,” Zimmer explained.
Schumacher placed the blame for any controversy regarding commissioner appointments in the hands of Princeton PUC General Manager Keith Butcher and other commissioners.
“They have made this process dysfunctional,” Schumacher stated, without providing a specific example. “They want the relationship between the city and the PUC to be dysfunctional because it works to their benefit. We [the city council] are not going to do that.”
Schumacher said the reason he suggested Gerold serve as an interim PUC commissioner was to provide seamless government leadership.
“What is the public to understand between now and Dec. 31,” Schwartz replied, referring to Gerold’s time as an interim PUC commissioner. “Are commissions going to be appointed, or is there going to be an application process. That’s the question that hasn’t been answered.”
Protocol Inquiry Made
Schwartz challenged the council to provide a protocol going forward.
“I’ve asked this question [via email] and I’ve not gotten any answers,” Schwartz contended. “Is the public going to wake up one morning and read [in the newspaper] that there’s been another appointment?”
According to Schwartz, the most recent process used by the city council to appoint one of its own members to the PUC locked out the public.
Schumacher said a notice of open PUC positions was published and the public wasn’t locked out.
“For you to say that is an atrocious statement,” Schumacher shot back.
Schwartz stood his ground.
“I have nothing against Jenny [Gerold] nor anyone on the council,” Schwartz replied. “Please put the application process in place so people can participate with their government.”
Schumacher returned to his theme of providing seamless government.
“It’s my job to provide that,” Schumacher said. “Seamless provides opportunity.”
Schwartz reminded Schumacher he wasn’t at the Feb. 13 meeting when Schwartz made his open forum comments.
At that time, Schwartz asked the four council members in attendance to address his concerns.
Councilor Speaks Up
Gerold then stepped in and began answering appointment protocol questions posed by Schwartz contained in an email sent to the city council.
“Typically, we open it up for applications,” she said. “However, occasionally, the council may choose to appoint someone. We have the right to do that, and that’s what we choose to do. But that doesn’t mean the normal protocol was changed. Is it possible that this could happen again? Possibly. Each situation will deem if we decided to open it up.”
Gerold added there were other opportunities for people to get involved with local government through boards and commissions.
Gerold ended her response to Schwartz’s questions by stating the process was not going to change because of the council’s Feb. 6 work session action.
“That’s what the people would like to know,” Schwartz said. “But the underlying part of this remains: What was the rush? There’s more time now when compared with the last time I applied to the PUC.”
Schwartz was referring to the process used by the city council when former PUC Commissioner Henry Findell resigned.
Last May, Findell resigned from the public utilities, which left his seat open until Dec. 31, 2019.
In mid-July, the city council set up a committee to review, interview and recommend five applicants. Schwartz was one of those applicants. He was not selected.
Schumacher replied: “As the mayor, I’m not going to drag out this process. In this community right now, we are working on jobs and housing development. We are working to improve our downtown. We are working on our parks. All of these things are community concerns.”
Mayor Is Challenged
Schumacher further contended that effort was being undermined by Princeton Public Utilities, but he didn’t provide specific examples of how or why that was occurring.
Schwartz accused Schumacher of running in circles around his question. Gerold responded by stating the council took the opportunity to put her in place as a PUC interim commissioner because her business skills would provide a good benefit.
Councilor Jeff Reynolds said that when looking at options to fill the PUC position, Gerold’s appointment represented the best solution.
City Administrator Robert Barbian said there has been a tremendous amount of change at Princeton Public Utilities and within its commission.
“Not only have all three commission members changed in less than a year, but the general manager and electric superintendent have changed,” Barbian said. “There have been new policies put in place. And lots of questions have been generated by these administrative changes.”
Barbian said there was a lot of mistrust involving the city and the PUC.
“We need to forget about looking back,” Barbian said. “I think the question is what are we going to do about the next appointment?”
Barbian again stated it’s the council’s prerogative to make board and commission appointments.
Zimmer said it was clear that the council wasn’t going to reverse its 3-2 vote from Feb. 6 that appointed Gerold as an interim PUC commissioner.
“Can we look at the end of that term, and at least have an application process?” Zimmer asked, with Councilor Jack Edmonds concurring.
Zimmer added: “If Councilor Gerold wants to apply, she can apply for the position just as Mr. Schwartz can. We could have another sub-committee review applications. Can we get a consensus on that?”
Zimmer pushed the council to make a decision now as opposed to November to clear the political air regarding the recent PUC appointment.
“Let’s move forward,” Zimmer said. “We know what this has caused. City Administrator Barbian just talked about mistrust. Where’s it coming from? I’ve been in this town 40-some years. I’ve never heard of anything that would lead people to staring criticizing the PUC.”
Process and Protocol
Zimmer said Gerold’s appointment to the PUC was a temporary fill-in.
Barbian asked City Clerk Shawna Jenkins to recap the city’s year-end process for notifying the public of board and commission applications.
Jenkins confirmed that process consists of putting a notice in the newspaper and advertising position openings on city social media.
“I do send letters out to the commissioners whose terms are ending,” Jenkins explained. “I include an application, and post it to our website.”
Barbian asked if that process was used for all commissions and boards. Jenkins replied yes.
Barbian asked if the council wanted to follow that process later this year when Gerold’s interim PUC appointment ends. Edmonds, Zimmer, and Gerold concurred with following that protocol suggestion.
“The normal process for the city is to have commission and board members be selected by the full council,” Barbian reiterated.
Jenkins again explained each fall, she sends letters to boards and commissions with terms ending, and publishes notices of openings in the newspaper and on the city’s website and Facebook page.
“Those people request applications, and people are appointed at the first city council meeting in January,” Jenkins explained.
Schumacher then stated: “I’m going to vote for whoever is on the city council to return to the PUC to help break mistrust.”
He added: “For as long as I’m mayor, there’s going to be a city council member sitting on the PUC. End of story. It’s doesn’t matter what policy or procedure comes through.”
Zimmer didn’t like Schumacher’s idea.
“My vote will be to have an application process,” Zimmer said.