It appears the city of Springfield is getting its good name back.
The ugly and drawn-out episode involving the city and its mayor, Jeff Northway, appears to be over, at least for Northway’s desire to be the city’s chief executive officer. Northway’s sudden resignation, even after a unanimous decision in his behalf from the state Supreme Court, shows the smoke from the fire the city held that could have burned the mayor badly.
A year ago, council members and Northway were in Effingham County Superior Court, with a judge hearing testimony for three days on council members’ petition to have Northway removed from office. A few weeks later, Judge William Woodrum ruled in favor of the council members.
Northway and his attorney, Charles Herman, appealed, and in the wake of that appeal, Northway resumed his seat on council dais for their first meeting in August. It was the last meeting Northway presided over.
In March, Springfield City Attorney Rick Rafter, who came on board in the middle of tussle between council members and the mayor, and Herman argued their cases before the state Supreme Court. The justices did not have many questions for Herman, but they peppered Rafter on the city’s case. It was a foreboding of the decision handed down by the state’s high court in favor of Northway.
When the two sides went to court here a year ago, the city did not have in hand the information that ultimately forced Northway’s hand. As they argued before the state Supreme Court, the city had been informed that there was something in Northway’s past that merited investigation.
Once the city understood what it had, it was clear that it was damaging to Northway’s claim to remain mayor. And once Northway caught wind of what the city knew of his past, he moved quickly to step aside. He asked the city not to release the information that assuredly would have ended his quest to resume his position as mayor.
But the city, abiding by open records statutes, said it could not comply with that request. Later, the city ultimately forced Northway’s hand — either resign immediately and agree to make no disparaging comments about the city and its employees or face a declaratory judgment petition seeking removal from office on grounds the mayor was never eligible from the start.
Therein lies the resolution — it turns out Northway never should have been allowed to run for mayor in the first place. If you want to buy a gun in certain places, you have to pass a background check. If you apply for certain jobs, you have to pass a background check.
If you want to run for elected office, there is no mechanism to verify a candidate’s claims. You have to rely on the candidate being forthright.
Now, does Northway’s lack of honesty — perhaps even downright deceit — call into question everything else he said during the city council’s endeavor into having him ousted from his seat? Regardless of whether Northway ever assumed his seat on council again, there is almost no chance for Northway and the council to have worked harmoniously. The recriminations lobbed back and forth between the two sides made any semblance of cohesion between mayor and council, and between mayor and city staff, impossible. The city would have been bogged down in a never-ending clash.
As it is, the city has functioned well in the mayor’s absence. Thanks to City Manager Brett Bennett, the city has partnered on several occasions with the Savannah College of Art and Design to set the parameters for a historical district. It also has landed grants to extend sewer lines to a lower-income area of town that has had problems with septic systems in periods of heavy rain.
For the last 20 months, the city has been called into question, and the legal battles with the mayor dangled over the city like the sword of Damocles. The city has emerged from the scandal not completely unscathed but at least with its reputation restored and it now can move forward. The city can sue to recoup its substantial legal fees for this mess. With Northway now out of the picture and no longer able to resume his mayor’s seat, maybe the city will elect to let the sordid affair slip quietly into history.