Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron filed a lawsuit against the Zionsville Town Council one day after the council’s unanimous decision to deny her formal request to discharge Zionsville Fire Dept. Chief James VanGorder, asking a judge to clarify whether the town’s mayor has the authority to demote certain upper-level policy making positions, including the Zionsville fire chief, without the approval of the town council.
Zionsville Town Council President Josh Garrett said Styron asked to demote VanGorder for performance-related allegations but that councilors found no evidence to support her claims. The mayor’s administration and the town council declined to elaborate further on the allegations, calling the situation a human resources matter.
Shortly after the meeting, Styron met with VanGorder to inform him he would be placed on a one-week, paid administrative leave, Garrett said. Once he returns, VanGorder was informed by Styron he would work as a type of project manager, reporting directly to the town’s mayor and deputy mayor, Garrett said.
“The mayor handed him a letter that stated while he is still the fire chief, he no longer has any of the roles or responsibilities he previously had; he would be given a new job description in the future; his office was going to be moved out of the fire department, and he was escorted out of the building,” Garrett said. “I, as council president, sent a letter of protest to the mayor because while she is still calling him the fire chief, she has effectively demoted him because he no longer has the roles and responsibilities for what he is doing. Also, she never told us who is taking over those roles and responsibilities. I reached out to her, and I reached out to the HR department and was told they would not be available to me to discuss this matter, nor would they be available in the future to discuss this matter.”
Styron did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
On March 16, Styron filed a lawsuit seeking a judicial determination of the authority of the town’s mayor to demote upper-level policy making positions, including the chief of the Zionsville Fire Dept., without the approval of the town council.
Styron’s decision to seek judicial determination relates to her and the town council’s conflicting interpretations of Zionsville’s 2014 reorganization resolution. The resolution created the town’s elected mayor position – Zionsville is one of two Indiana towns with a mayor – and outlined the roles and powers of the town’s mayor and town council.
The town’s reorganization resolution states that “all rights and responsibilities assigned by Indiana law to the town executive or town council president in his or her executive capacity are transferred to, and are rights and responsibilities of, the mayor. Powers include the ability to appoint members to and remove from boards, utilities and commissions, which were the power of the town council president prior to this reorganization.” It also states that provisions of the 2014 reorganization resolution “control over state law and any conflicting item in (a) 2010 reorganization (resolution).”
The reorganization resolution also states, “The Mayor must have the approval of a majority of the town council before the executive may discharge a department head, with the exception of the superintendent of parks and recreation, which requires approval of the Board of Park and Recreation.”
Zionsville’s mayor is granted executive power in the resolution and the ability to appoint department heads, who are under the jurisdiction of the mayor, with the exception of the superintendent of parks and recreation.
Styron, according to the suit, believes, as a corollary to the power of appointment, the mayor has the authority to demote the town’s chief of police and fire department to the position he or she occupied prior to the appointment as chief.
“There is a fundamental disagreement between the executive branch and the legislative branch in Zionsville over the authority of the mayor to decide who should lead a Town department,” Styron stated in a press release. “I believe the result of this legal action will provide clarity to my administration and to all future mayors of Zionsville about whether or not a mayor has the ability to select their own leadership team to run town departments. There must be no ambiguity.”
Garrett said he and the town council found Styron’s decision to file the lawsuit “concerning” and “disappointing” and that her decision to effectively demote VanGorder goes against the town’s reorganization resolution.
“When she didn’t get the answer she wanted, she chose to act unilaterally and file a lawsuit against us,” Garrett said.
Garrett said Styron and her administration gave VanGorder a positive performance review when she was first elected but that “something happened six months into her office that she went from a supporter to wanting to get rid of him – I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what those details are.”
Late last year, Styron approached Garrett and then-council vice president Bryan Traylor concerning VanGorder. Garrett said Styron recommended VanGorder be demoted. The town council, because of the severity of the claims, requested evidence to support Styron’s allegations and held three executive sessions to discuss the matter. The council deemed Styron’s evidence to be insufficient, leading to its unanimous vote to deny Styron’s motion to discharge VanGorder. Garrett said the town council received more than 100 emails and phone calls supporting VanGorder.
“I think during this process, it became apparent that there are some issues to address within our fire department, as there are in really any type of large organization,” Garrett said during the town council’s March 15 meeting. “I was certainly relieved in conversations I had with firefighters that none of these issues were related to their own safety or the safety of the public, but there were issues nonetheless. None of these issues seemed insurmountable, which is a good thing. But they need to be documented and, I also think, addressed with some urgency.”
Garrett, who declined to specify the “issues,” said he believed they could be “overcome for the betterment of the community.”