Cowden returns to town Petersburg board

Friday, April 17, 2009

PETERSBURG - Former Mayor John Cowden returned to the town board this month after announcing his resignation on March 9 with comments that there are others willing to serve on the board.

But Cowden's letter of resignation only said he'd resigned as mayor and Monday night, he explained that mayors are appointed here by a vote of the aldermen who serve as representatives of the people.

"I had a lot of people come to me and ask if I'd stay as mayor," Cowden said Monday night after a two-hour meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen led by John Owen who's been promoted by the aldermen from vice mayor to Cowden's successor.

Technically, Owen was unanimously elected Monday, but Alderman Brad Dillenback abstained. Dillenback has been a firebrand in town. He and his supporters have raised questions that have attracted attention from others.

Some contentious comments arose Monday but the regular monthly meeting was without the extensive "bickering" that marked the March meeting when Cowden told the board, "It's been good to work with you," and, "We've got several people who would like to be on the board."

As for Cowden's return, Owen offer this interpretation: "I think when he left, he felt he was finished, but later... he got to talking... and said he'd stay on as alderman."

Within three days of Cowden's announcement, Alderman Phillip McMillian recalled that Cowden had resigned before, and while resignations may need a letter saying so, the board must vote to accept it, but McMillian expressed doubt about Cowden's return.

Nevertheless, Cowden's letter of resignation was about his appointment as mayor and it was accepted Monday.

"The only vacancy is for vice mayor," Owen explained Monday. "We'll have to handle that at the next regular meeting."

They're normally held on the second Monday night of the month.

The rest of the town board meeting included progress, some delay and Owen's willingness to assert control over what's repeatedly called "bickering" between residents and the board.

Examples include:

* A delay in hiring Putman and Hancock accountants to conduct the town's audit of fiscal year 2008-09 which ends on June 30.

The Fayetteville-based firm offered a $10,350 price for the job and Owen asked if there were other "bids," but none were received. Dillenback said there's another firm in Fayetteville; the one the town used years ago before Putman and Hancock were hired.

"You were the one who was supposed to do it," Owen said to Dillenback about finding an alternative company to audit the town. "I'll call them tomorrow and find out what they'll do."

Dillenback said he recalled the other firm charged "like $4,000" in 2000.

On a motion by Cowden, the board tabled the decision to hire an auditor.

* A vote against paying a $300 invoice from a town contractor in connection with work performed on private property.

A widow's water service line failed on Saturday. Cowden, the woman's son and the contractor's son repaired the pipe. Cowden and the town provided fixtures. The son used his backhoe and the contractor's employee provided know-how and assistance.

Discussion indicated the laborer volunteered and his employer submitted the invoice.

Alderman Ricky Wright said the town shouldn't pay. Cowden noted a city contractor had been accused of breaking the pipe, but Cowden didn't believe it. Owen said it's a "Catch-22."

With several people in the audience wearing yellow and purple Lions Club vests, Wright's motion against paying included the suggestion that the city look for donations to pay for the work.

The vote was unanimous, except Owen abstained.

* Police Chief Larry Hardin's request for approval of an application for a grant of federal stimulus money that would pay the first three of a four-year obligation for a new police officer.

"We're currently short on nights," Hardin said.

Referring to a press report, Dillenback said, "We don't know what's going to happen in the next three months" with the national economy.

While Marshall County commissioners were concerned about their responsibility for continued funding, the point was less about the economy as it was the civil service system at the sheriff's department where employees are protected against unfair employment practices.

"We can accept the application request and if we don't want the grant, we don't have to take it," Cowden said.

The vote to support Hardin's plan to apply for federal stimulus funding for another officer was supported unanimously, although Dillenback abstained.

* Conflict between Dillenback and Hardin flared briefly as the chief proceeded on other department reports and Dillenback said the department was "over budget."

Hardin said it's not and the two exchanged statements about their differences on how they view the Police Department budget.

Owen slapped the board's meeting table announcing "Time out," and explained he'd not tolerate bickering. Hardin asked Dillenback for numbers. Dillenback said he got them from Town Recorder Dawn Forlines who explained the mathematical nature of negative numbers when applied to spending. It's savings, not spending.

"You've picked on me ever since you've been on the board," Hardin told Dillenback who replied with a complaint about having to pay for copies of public records and delay in getting town bank records.

"We've gotten off track," Owen said, eventually steering discussion back to topics on the agenda, although he had to ask the board to "squash that" bickering.