Oath-taking dispute leaves commission without leader

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN — What happens if someone is appointed to a government position, but never takes the oath of office?

That was the question facing four members of the city’s Civil Service Commission last week, and it quickly turned into a proxy for slumbering political battles.

At issue was the situation of a fellow commissioner, Marjorie Powell, a longtime community activist and former two-term City Council president. Since Powell’s most recent term on the commission expired in June 2009, she has continued to chair the five-member panel without actually being a sworn officer of the city.

That’s because even though the other commissioners had reappointed her to another four-year term in May 2009, she never took the oath, which, according to the City Charter, must be taken within 10 days of the appointment.

The matter was brought to fore in late May by City Council President Thomas Tafelski, who said he noticed the discrepancy when he was going over a roster of commission members and didn’t see Powell’s name. Knowing she had been at the meetings, he made some inquiries and found she wasn’t on the list because her oath was never taken, thus voiding her reappointment.

While he expressed great respect for Powell and her long history of civic engagement, he countered that the nature of the commission – it is an independent body that oversees the Human Resources Department and is supposed to remove any political considerations from city employment decisions and – dictates that all rules and regulations must be followed to the letter.

“I can’t say clearly enough that this is not about Marge,” Tafelski said, “but it’s about the integrity of the system, and we need to make sure that all protocols are followed to the utmost in every situation, but especially with (the commission).”

So he contacted the city’s Department of Law to see what should happen.

Corporation Counsel Debra Walling drafted a memo offering two options: Powell either could request from the council an extension to the time period in which she had to take the oath, or the commission could do a quasi-reappointment and name Powell to the vacant seat.

The former was the preferred course of action, Walling said, because it would prevent any claim that decisions made by the commission while Powell wasn’t officially a member were null and void. Moreover, reappointing Powell would confirm that her position was in fact vacant, and would raise questions of when her term should expire. It could also lend legitimacy to claims that the commission’s actions were illegitimate, she said.

But at the commission’s meeting on Thursday, the second item on the agenda was the reappointment of Marjorie Powell. While Powell sat in a nearby room, city Human Resource Director Valerie Murphy-Goodrich, who reports to the commission, told the commissioners she put the item on the agenda because she had been unable to schedule a special meeting with the council before its July recess to get Powell’s oath-taking period extended.

With such a wait, she said, the commission would have difficulty functioning without a fifth member. Walling, who was in attendance, responded by saying the commission only requires a quorum, or three of the five members, to take actions. She added that, given Powell’s history of public service, the council likely would be receptive to the idea of extending her oath-taking period.

The advice went unheeded by Commissioner Kathryn Mackie, who subsequently made a motion to reappoint Powell, saying “I don’t think this should be about fighting each other or battles, and I don’t think Marge meant to do this.” Commissioner Michael Berry seconded the motion and the issue was sent to vote.

The result: a 2-2 split with Mackie and Berry voting in favor and Commissioners Margaret Schaefer and James Pietz dissenting. The tie also meant Powell’s reappointment failed. And that’s when things got tense.

Undeterred by the setback, Powell reportedly decided to try the other route recommended by Walling and ask the council for a time extension. Appearing at Thursday night’s committee of the whole meeting, where items are scheduled for the regular council meetings, Murphy-Goodrich presented members with a letter from Powell requesting the extension.

The gesture was met with criticism by Tafelski. In an interview Friday, he said Murphy-Goodrich should not have appeared in front of the council for issues relating to an open commission seat, as it essentially would be like choosing her own boss.

“I think we have a department head who’s gone rogue,” Tafelski said. “We need to seriously re-examine the process if (Murphy-Goodrich) feels like this is appropriate.”

Murphy-Goodrich in a separate interview said she didn’t understand his criticism.

“According to the city charter I am the secretary for the commission,” she said. “(Powell) intended on being at the meeting where (the council) votes on it, but I only went there to get it onto the agenda for the next meeting.”

But the council declined to put the item on the agenda, instead deciding to wait for the results of a Plante & Moran study into the procedures of the commission, as well as for the return from vacation of Mayor John O’Reilly Jr.