City-County Council President Stephen Clay fires attorney, clerk in wake of no confidence vote

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- Three weeks into a tumultuous reign that saw him score an upset victory to become City-County Council president and then be slapped down with a no confidence vote led by fellow democrats, Rev. Stephen J. Clay has moved to consolidate his power by dismissing three top holdover staffers in the council office.

His opponents claim that’s illegal.

“What we had today was transition which happens with any new administration,” said Clay. “We are operating, as I understand it, within the authority and scope of this office. We are the president of this City County Council until such time as we are not the president.”

Council Attorney Fred Biesecker was essentially fired, though his contract as legal counsel expired at the end of 2017, Clerk Natrina DeBow was told she was gone, even though municipal code would seem to leave that decision up to the full council, and Deputy Clerk Sarita Hughes’ county government email account was shut down, though Clay denied knowing anything about her departure.

“I went into his office and he let me know that he had terminated the contract for our general counsel and he was going to make staff adjustments and that included me and the assistant clerk and that I would be escorted out of the building by a sheriff's deputy,” said Debow minutes before an armed deputy walked her out of the City County Building. “I asked him if he was aware that he could not do that, that I would need that to be voted out by the council, and he said he felt that was of legal opinion and that this is what he is going to do for now and if it's not what he should do, he will deal with that later.”

During his first committee meeting as council president, presiding over the Committee on Committees on Jan. 11, Clay was advised by both DeBow and Biesecker that some of the procedural moves he attempted that day were illegal.

Clay explained that he was new to the process of chairing such meetings and would learn as he went along.

DeBow said in firing her, Clay was in violation of Municipal Code Section 151-91 which is titled “Appointment and Term of Office” and reads, “The clerk, pursuant to state law, shall be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the City-County Council for a term of one year.”

DeBow, who served for six years under Clay’s predecessor Councilwoman Maggie Lewis, was recently reappointed to her post for 2018.

Biesecker told CBS4 News that when Clay fired him this morning, he told the council president, “he didn’t have the authority,” to dismiss the legal counsel.

“The full council is my client,” said Biesecker. “Stephen J. Clay is not my client.”

“We do not believe that it is within his ability to remove the clerk of the City County Council. She is elected so we think that is illegal,” said Councilman Jared Evans, a democrat who opposed Clay’s election.  “I think this only goes to further show that the actions that were taken last Monday were correct, that we have no confidence in Councilor Clay to govern this city council. Also I have a reaction of disgust for the employees today for being walked out, escorted out of their jobs.”

Just days after his surprise election as council president, Clay, who picked up a handful of democrat votes to match GOP support and win the leadership seat, angered his own party members by naming republicans to chair three committees.

This past Monday, at least two former Clay supporters joined with opponents to vote no confidence in their leader which may result in a formal retraction and election of a new president in mid-February.

“I’d say it's transition. It's not retaliatory,” said Clay an hour after word of the firings began to circulate through the CCB. “This decision is mine. I did it. I own it and I stand behind it. Period.”

Clay refused to provide a rationale for the firings, an expectation of their replacements, the name of his legal advisor or a timetable for the hiring of new staffers, instead referring to his decision as based on, “character, capacity and chemistry.”

“This is not retaliation,” he insisted. “You can spin it like it is, you can cast it like it is, but that’s not what it is.”

The newly unemployed council staffers disagree.

“I do believe this is some sort of retaliation for Monday night’s council meeting,” said DeBow. “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Evans said the democratic leadership of the council would meet to consider a response to Clay’s purge and that legal action would be a possibility.

“We don’t need to have councilors who are coming in here trying to make deals with other councilors to accomplish this goal or that goal,” said Evans. “I think it also shows the public that we are going to stand up against people who we think are bad regardless if you are republican or democrat.”

“I am in the job until I no longer have the job,” said Clay in defending his power play.

Depending on survival of a revolt against his insurgency next month, Clay is vowing to launch an audit of the council’s budget.

Marion County GOP Chairman State Senator Jim Merritt told CBS4 News he considered the council staff firings, “an intra-family political stunt,” by democrats and that, “This really continues to erode the public trust in the City County Council.”

Merritt said he had not yet spoken to Council Minority Leader Michael McQuillen to determine if council republicans were rethinking their support of Clay for president in the wake of this upheaval.

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