Shake-up in Monticello
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO The fractured state of Monticello’s Village Board spilled out into the audience at Monday’s meeting, focusing for a time on new Village Manager Zach Kelson.
Kelson, who had been hired at a special meeting the day before via a 3-2 vote, was asked if he had a report to make, apparently as a formality. He surprised the crowd by actually agreeing to speak.
“We’ve got a lot of trouble, a lot of problems, but one thing we do have is we have a good bunch of employees in the village,” he began. “We have people who care about where they live; people who want to make a good living and work hard for the village.”
Kelson assured that he’s not considering firing staff but does want to improve village government.
“Many of you have been to these previous board meetings and seen what I would consider not good behavior,” he continued. “... Without pointing fingers at anybody on the board ... I think that everybody on the board needs to learn to work together, and that’s something that only works if all five of them do it.”
At that moment, Mayor Gordon Jenkins rapped his gavel on the table, telling Kelson to sit down.
“I am in the middle of making my address, Mayor,” Kelson angrily replied. “I think that is rude to interrupt.”
“Mr. Kelson, we are running this board meeting here,” Jenkins responded. “... You work for the people out here, Mr. Kelson. You do not work for yourself here. Remember that.”
“I promise that when the mayor speaks, I won’t heckle him,” Kelson shot back, “so maybe we can ask him to keep quiet for a minute so I can finish what I was saying.”
And so another village board meeting erupted into chaotic shouting, with police officers and the board vainly trying to restore order.
The division in the audience, however, mirrored that on the board, which on Sunday had hired Kelson to temporarily replace just-fired Village Manager John Barbarite apparently as a result of conversations about Kelson that never included the mayor or Trustee TC Hutchins, both Barbarite supporters.
Trustee Carmen Rue had earlier explained that the move was necessary because Jenkins had publicly threatened to shut down the village as manager, but village law would seem to indicate that only the mayor can temporarily replace the village manager.
Village Attorney Jacob Billig confirmed the meeting was legally noticed. There was, however, disagreement over whether the three who had voted to hire Kelson Rue, Victor Marinello and Scott Schoonmaker had intended for him to be temporary. Rue clearly indicated a nationwide search would be undertaken for a new manager, but Marinello said Kelson was hired as a permanent village manager.
The board held a half-hour executive session Monday reportedly to set Kelson’s salary, but thanks to the ensuing chaos, no formal vote was ever taken. Thus Kelson is currently serving for free or, as he put it Tuesday, as “a public service.”
How long he’ll be on the job is highly uncertain. Hutchins and Jenkins feel his installation was a sneaky rush job by the other board members.
“They were so gung-ho on picking Mr. Kelson because they owe political payback,” Jenkins charged.
Marinello, on the other hand, angrily asked the mayor and the audience to give Kelson a chance to do his job.
“We have to try and move on with the village,” he urged.
But what had previously been racial undertones became overtones, first with Kelson being accused by Hutchins of making racist statements, followed by Marinello being accused of something similar, and Jenkins musing about the increasing division within Monticello.
“I’ve been in office about eight months,” Jenkins said. “Since I’ve been mayor in this village, it’s been nothing but an attack game. ... Sometimes I sit here and wonder, with all the chaos that’s been going on since I’ve been here, is it maybe because I’m a black man?”
Invoking Martin Luther King Jr. as his “war hero,” Jenkins vowed to fight the corruption he felt exists on the board, even wondering if he, too, might be assassinated comments which elicited applause from about half the crowd.
But Marinello furiously responded: “What the mayor just said is an absolute disgrace. ... I’ve been on this board for eight years, and I’m here to tell you right now that everything this man said is false. ... The man is a liar.
“... I don’t owe anything to Mr. Kelson. I don’t owe anything to anybody in this village,” he continued, angrily accusing the mayor of corruptly trying to push his own agenda with Barbarite onto the board.
Marinello even charged the mayor with threatening assault by challenging him to a boxing match after a recent meeting.
The back-and-forth continued much of the evening. The next day, however, Kelson was still on the job, though balancing it with his law practice.
He felt the meeting had demonstrated what is sorely lacking in the village.
“It was unfortunate,” he noted. “It should show the public that they need to work on civility. It’s OK to disagree, but you need to do it in a civil manner.”
He saw a role for himself in that effort.
“I took this job to try and unite and find some common ground for the trustees,” he explained.
And even though he believes he was silenced Monday “for political reasons”, Kelson also believes he can work with Jenkins in the best interests of Monticello and help the village conduct business “in a warmer and friendlier manner.”
But Jenkins isn’t sure how closely he can work with someone he feels is illegally occupying the position.
“That meeting [Sunday] was illegal,” Jenkins said, saying Billig’s feeling that the meeting was legal “is his opinion.”
Jenkins has retained his own attorney at his own expense to fight the appointment and bring back the man he feels has the time and experience to dedicate to the job.
“I would like to try to reinstate John Barbarite,” he concluded. “I’m just trying to fight for what’s right.”