Dysfunction between city clerk and Council brings steep consulting fees, canceled meeting
SOUTH BEND ― City Clerk Dawn Jones is paid nearly $80,000 a year to oversee an office that organizes bills to be heard by the South Bend Common Council, performs administrative work on the Council’s behalf and maintains a record of all proceedings.
But since last April, city records show, the Council has paid $56,640 to an outside consultant to “assist the clerk’s office” with basic tasks that, according to Council President Sharon McBride, Jones and her staff have proven unable to complete. And Jones herself arranged a private contract to pay her daughter nearly $11,000 last year when her office was struggling to prepare written minutes for Council meetings.
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A recent flare-up of the dysfunction between Jones and the Council led to disruption of the first of January’s two scheduled Council meetings and an abrupt cancellation of the second.
The Council's consultant, Bianca Tirado, worked as chief deputy clerk to Jones for two-and-a-half years before quitting in early 2022. Having started at the clerk's office in late 2017, Tirado's four-and-a-half years of experience gave her "unique knowledge" of the relationship between the clerk and the Council, according to her consulting contract.
McBride and former Council President Tim Scott, who stepped down in June 2020, said Jones lacked the knowledge to lead the clerk’s office upon taking over. Jones previously worked as a financial coach and counselor for South Bend Heritage Foundation, and served for 19 years as a South Bend Community School Corp. board member.
“Dawn was in a learning mode,” Scott said of the months he worked with Jones. “She didn’t know any of that process at the time. She had other people on her staff that knew what to do.”
The pandemic caused the working relationship between the Council and the clerk to stagnate, McBride said. As city routines were re-established, however, McBride said in a statement that “statutorily mandated actions were either not being performed or not being performed in a timely manner.”
When McBride learned in early 2022 that Tirado would be the last in a string of employees to resign from the office, she formed the consulting contract. She told The Tribune it was necessary to ensure the Council's continued functioning.
Jones denied that her office needs help from Tirado. So when Tirado began attempts to train the clerk’s employees in the spring, Jones refused to cooperate.
She viewed it as a move by McBride and other councilors to “bully” her into taking orders.
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“I didn’t want (Tirado) in here,” Jones told a reporter during an interview in the clerk’s office. “She was overstepping and undermining my authority with my staff, and my staff was feeling that (it was) creating a hostile environment.”
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While being paid by the Council, Tirado is also vying to oust her former boss as city clerk in this year’s municipal election.
To Jones, the overlapping roles seem problematic: The Council is paying a candidate for the clerk’s office to perform duties that normally might be shared among the clerk’s staff.
Of McBride and other city officials critical of her, Jones said: “They want someone else to be in this position, so they undermine everything I do.”
Jones will run to keep her position. She was never formally elected but rather chosen for the role during a special caucus, after the prior clerk stepped down in August 2019. Tirado was a candidate in that caucus, as well, but Democratic precinct committee members chose Jones.
Tirado filed to run in early January alongside South Bend Mayor James Mueller, a show of the mayor’s support at which Jones took umbrage.
Tirado declined to be interviewed for this story, saying she was willing to talk only about her campaign.
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Throughout 2022, the clerk’s office was struggling to record written minutes for every Council meeting, a practice mandated by state law. The difficulty led Jones ― unbeknownst to the Council ― to form a private contract that Council attorney Bob Palmer called problematic.
Recording the minutes was proving to be a costly, time-intensive task, Jones said. She wanted to hire a company to transcribe the meetings and prepare minutes, but the Council worried about how much it would cost.
After struggling to find someone in her office for the job, Jones privately formed an agreement to pay $11,625 from June to Dec. 31 to a company called EduLove.
The Peoria, Illinois, company is owned by Jones’ daughter, Jones confirmed to The Tribune.
As of mid-January, $10,875 of the contract had been paid, city records show. The payments stopped after Jones learned from the Indiana State Board of Accounts that it was improper to have formed the agreement without the Council’s approval.
“I didn’t know what else to do so I asked my daughter,” Jones told The Tribune. “She’s a professional writer. And she’s a school administrator; she clearly is not a minute-taker, so she was doing me a favor.”
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Jones added that she asked her daughter to prepare the minutes at a discounted rate.
“I said, ‘But you have to do it for less than what everybody else does, because you’re my family,” Jones recalled. The deal was $750 a meeting for 14 Council sessions and $75 per transcription for an estimated 15 committee meetings.
McBride said councilors had been completely unaware of the private agreement until recently. Jones' daughter would watch meetings virtually instead of attending in person.
McBride called the contract an instance of nepotism that never should have occurred.
“The Council was very surprised to learn that her daughter was illegally performing the transcription of minutes,” McBride told The Tribune. “And also it came into play because we were never getting minutes in a timely fashion.”
At the first Council meeting this month, four months’ worth of meeting minutes had yet to be approved. Indiana’s public access counselor says a reasonable time in which to prepare minutes is 14 days.
Tirado’s pay exceeds expectations
Tirado’s work for the Council was supposed to last through 2022. But McBride said the Council will continue to pay Tirado, despite her now being a candidate for municipal office.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” McBride said of the arrangement. “She still will be the liaison.”
Tirado’s consulting contract, signed by McBride and Council Vice President Sheila Niezgodski in April, said Tirado was not to be paid more than $6,000 a month at a $60 hourly rate. But for the last three months of 2022, she steadily logged more than the 100 hours expected each month.
From Nov. 18 to Dec. 20, a busy season for municipal governments with year-end filings, Tirado listed nearly twice as many hours as planned per month and was paid a steep sum of $11,520.
Tirado wrote in payment invoices obtained by The Tribune that the work consisted mainly of communicating with councilors, planning community events and helping to prepare for 2023 budget hearings. Early in the term of the contract, she tried to train Jones’ staff on the working relationship between the clerk's office and the Common Council.
In response to Tirado earning about $9,000 more than planned during 2022, McBride said in a statement that “problems were worse than initially thought and additional work was necessary.” She cited year-end financial reporting as part of the worsened burden.
McBride said councilors were informed of the contract in April, and none objected.
But 2nd District councilor Henry Davis Jr. recently shared his concern that the work was redundant and the monthly fee was far too high. He noted that Tirado made in one month half of the money Council members are paid annually — about $22,000.
Municipal contracts for professional services aren’t subject to a Council vote or public input, according to the Council attorney. The Council allots itself money each year for professional services, and its only duty is to stay within that budget.
“It’s similar to buying snacks for the parade: that doesn't have to go through the whole Council,” Palmer said of professional service agreements. “That’s something that’s within the discretion of the president.”
Dysfunction leads to canceled meeting
Two weeks ago, a proposal was to be left off the Council’s agenda for an obscure reason. McBride said the resolution was filed without an introductory cover letter and without identifying which councilor submitted it, both of which are required by city ordinance.
Yet Jones added the resolution, which was authored by Davis and called for a non-binding commitment to “reparatory justice” for South Bend’s Black residents, to the Council agenda anyway.
McBride, Palmer and other councilors criticized the clerk for overstepping her legal duties. On the day of the Jan. 9 meeting, the resolution was struck from the agenda.
The resolution showed up on the Council's agenda again this week, ahead of its regularly scheduled meeting Monday. But by Monday at 10 a.m., about five hours before committee meetings were to begin, McBride said in a statement the meeting was canceled.
The highly unusual cancellation was due to a mistake made by the clerk’s office, according to McBride and the Council attorney. Under Indiana Open Door Laws that govern access to public meetings, physical notice must be posted at their location at least 48 hours before a meeting begins.
McBride and Palmer say a physical notice wasn't posted outside the Council chambers in time. The state public access counselor advised Palmer that the meeting be canceled.
“That is not true,” Jones told The Tribune when asked Monday about the apparent blunder. She said she followed her standard procedures for posting agendas.
“It’s really kind of suspicious that this is an election year,” Jones said, “and it’s right before the election, and then all of the sudden, we have all these problems.”
McBride said the clerk’s work has been inadequate since she took office, but the pandemic complicated attempts to establish new procedures. She sees the recent problems as further justification for Tirado’s consulting work.
Four Council members — Canneth Lee, Troy Warner, Rachel Tomas Morgan and Niezgodski — joined McBride in condemning Jones' alleged neglect of her duty.
"We also denounce Clerk Dawn Jones' attempts to ignore and deflect her inability to do her job and follow the law by instead holding a politically divisive and inflammatory press conference," reads a statement endorsed by the four councilors.
Councilor Karen White stated separately that she was "deeply concerned and saddened" that months of disarray led to the cancellation of Monday's meeting.
While the clerk's office typically sends statements on behalf of Council members, both of these were sent by Tirado.
The mayor also chimed in on the meeting cancellation, saying in a statement: “I’m disappointed that an embarrassing procedural error prevents the Common Council from moving forward today."
He told The Tribune Wednesday that he's working with the Council to reschedule the meeting, but "the process is more convoluted than anyone would hope."
Email South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at JTsmith@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jordantsmith09
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Disarray between South Bend city clerk and Council leads to costly fix