Don’t expect a great deal of celebration in Springfield, even in the aftermath of Judge William Woodrum’s ruling last Friday.
The judge ruled in favor of the city council members who petitioned the Superior Court to remove Jeff Northway from office as mayor. The mood at City Hall and among council members after learning of the judge’s decision was less that of jubilation and more that of relief, a relief that an episode that had sullied the image of Springfield was over.
It’s been a tense last several months for the city, waiting for a decision on whether the mayor would stay or be removed from office. In fact, the events that eventually triggered the council members’ actions to seek Northway’s removal happened almost exactly a year ago.
The judge, in his finding, didn’t castigate Northway for his actions or lack thereof that fateful night at Ulmer Park. While what transpired may have been provocative, the witnesses told the judge that what happened wasn’t inappropriate. The Ulmer Park incident was not grounds for removal, in the judge’s estimation.
He also did not find that Northway was culpable in any minutes being missing nor was he using his position for financial gain. Some of what was lobbied, by both sides, had the appearance of a fishing expedition. Charges of Northway seeking a free lunch at Effingham Hospital’s Morrison’s Cafeteria fell flat. Reported threats from Northway or his legal team couldn’t be backed up.
But Northway was tripped up when his counterclaims also bore no fruit. Charges of racism backfired when he had to admit that not running water and sewer lines to a less affluent neighborhood had less to do with the majority of its residents being minorities and more to do with those residents not wanting to have those lines until better financing for impact fees could be arranged.
What the judge said as his determining factor was along the lines of what some council members remarked as they left the courtroom following the final day of testimony: Northway’s own inconsistencies in his testimony proved to be his undoing. Judge Woodrum said there were many examples of Northway’s inconsistent testimony, and the statements regarding the extension of sewer lines was highlighted.
The judge also delivered a crushing blow in his final statements about the case. Northway’s repeated inconsistencies showed a lack of “administrative ability to perform his public duties.” He noted that Northway’s actions served to undermine the trust placed in city council and the city manager. Judge Woodrum found “competent and substantial evidence” to support the council members’ request.
Most damaging to Northway was a tape recording of a conversation in which he made “unsupported and unsolicited statements pertaining to racial bias and improper bidding practices” by council members. Such statements, the judge said, had a negative effect on the city’s credibility. The statements were recorded after local store owner Jamey Stancell was recording a conversation with historian Betty Ford Renfro, hoping to keep her thoughts and words for posterity, when Northway and his wife entered the store.
The judge also took Northway to task for “wrongfully and unjustly” reprimanding city clerk Linda Rineair after she would not allow him to take copies of city meetings minutes out of her office, the result of a recent procedure change in city hall to prevent more meeting minutes from disappearing.
Jeff Ambrose, as mayor pro tem, will take over running the meetings. In his few, brief instances leading city council meetings, he’s already shown to run a tight, focused ship. Older city council members are glad there are younger members on board and hope there are more still to take their place when they decide to step down.
The city council, aside from the contretemps with the mayor, has been a harmonious group. Springfield has avoided controversy that has dogged other Effingham municipalities — until recently.
Springfield has a lot going for it; it has its niche as a quiet, small town with not a great deal of crime. It has some needs, too, but it has advantages as well — the Mars Theatre project and the Living History Site, chiefly.
It also has to find a way to put the nastiness of this episode behind it and move on.