Springfield Mayor Jeff Northway will take the stand again this morning as the Effingham County Superior Court proceeding on whether he will continue as mayor enters its third day.
City council members petitioned Superior Court to have Northway removed from office after the mayor refused to resign following a council request last November he do so.
The council’s actions stemmed from an incident at Ulmer Park and an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation that followed. The night before an August 2010 cookoff fundraiser at Ulmer Park, Northway was asleep in his camper, set up near his grills, when his son and a few others knocked on the door in the early morning hours.
They had walked there from Kelly’s Tavern and continued to hang around. What followed where allegations of continued drinking and possibly inappropriate dance performed by one city employee for another city employee.
Northway denied anything wrong took place.
“No one was hurt. No one was in trouble. No inappropriate dancing took place,” he said.
Teresa Osborne, who was part of the party that walked to Ulmer Park from Kelly’s and whose daughter was also in the group, also said nothing inappropriate was taking place.
“They were just hanging out and being kids,” she said. “It was just nothing.”
She also said the dancing, performed by police clerk Wendy Sherrod for Justin Horton, did not appear to be anything out of the ordinary for today’s dancing styles. However, Fire Chief Travis Zitterour said it appeared to be a lap dance, though no clothes were removed during the act.
Sherrod said she didn’t deem what she did to be inappropriate and neither did Horton, though Horton said he was uncomfortable when he had to explain to his wife what transpired.
Zitterour also said the mayor did not ask those there to stop drinking and dancing.
Council members also pointed to Northway’s reluctance to take part in the EEOC investigation. The investigation, city manager Brett Bennett said, was undertaken to protect the city in case any complaints arose from the Ulmer Park incident. Northway asked to speak with his lawyer at the start of his interview. Compliance with the interviews was not mandatory, Burns said.
“I think I did the right thing, for my protection,” Northway said.
Bennett said he asked Burns what to do after continuing to hear rumors about what took place at Ulmer Park.
The petitioners also tried to paint a picture of intimidation at city hall under Northway. Petitioners’ attorney Mickey Kicklighter said Northway’s attacks on the city council, city personnel and citizens had undermined the council’s ability to govern.
“The city cannot function if he remains in that position,” Kicklighter said.
Northway had issued city clerk Linda Rineair a reprimand for not allowing him to take minutes of city council meetings into his office. Rineair explained to him that a new procedure put her in custody of the meeting minutes after several of them were discovered missing.
Northway said he was not aware of the change in procedure and would not have written up Rineair if he had known that beforehand.
Northway also was questioned about the atmosphere at city hall and if employees there feel threatened and intimidated when he is there.
“Everybody seems to be on pins and needles,” said accounting clerk Amber Nettles.
Nettles said she and city clerk Linda Rineair have an agreement not to leave each other alone in city hall.
Council members also said that if the mayor continues to hold office, it very well may bring the city’s operations to a halt as neither Bennett nor Rineair expect to stay in their jobs long if Northway remains as mayor.
Bennett said he would probably have to find another job if Northway isn’t removed from office.
“It hasn’t been a pleasant experience the last few months,” he said. “It’s taken a toll.”
Council member Troy Allen said the “turmoil factor was high” in city hall. Rineair said she now is on a prescription after Northway issued her the written reprimand.
Said Council member Butch Kieffer: “Linda Rineair will not remain employed with the city, and that will be detrimental because of her knowledge. Brett Bennett will not remain employed. Those are the key personnel. They have the knowledge of the day-to-day operations. We would be putting the city in jeopardy by losing those two people.”
Council members also said what they perceived as threats from Northway or his legal representation were passed onto them by Burns. Council members said they were told they better be “squeaky clean” as Northway and his team were going to come after them following the EEOC inquiry. Northway denied making the accusation.