Judge: Zionsville mayor doesn’t have authority to unilaterally demote department heads

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In a June 4 ruling, Boone County Judge Matthew Kincaid determined Zionsville’s mayor does not have the authority to demote department heads, settling the core issue of a lawsuit between Zionsville Mayor Emily

Styron

, the Zionsville Town Council and Zionsville Fire Dept. Chief James VanGorder.

The ruling came after Styron requested to discharge VanGorder in March. The Zionsville Town Council denied the request, citing insufficient evidence. Just after the council’s vote, Styron unilaterally decided to place VanGorder on a one-week paid administrative leave and assigned him project manager duties, reporting directly to her and the town’s deputy mayor when he returned. Styron also sued the town council, asking a judge to determine whether the town’s mayor, under the town’s 2014 reorganization resolution, has the authority to demote department heads, such as the town’s fire chief, without the approval of the town council. Kincaid determined the mayor does not have that authority.

“The Mayor of the Town (of) Zionsville does not have the authority to demote a department head such as the Fire Chief or Chief of Police, because the same is the equivalent of discharging a department head and for the Mayor of the Town of Zionsville to lawfully exercise that authority, the Mayor must have the approval of a majority of the Town Council pursuant to … the 2014 Town of Zionsville Reorganization,” the determination stated.

According to court documents, Styron alleged five to nine Zionsville firefighters had formed a “quitting pact,” or intended to leave the department, if new leadership of the Zionsville Fire Dept. was not established, leading her to call the situation “a public safety risk” and a justification for her decision in March to place VanGorder on administrative leave and assign him to a project manager role when he returned one week later.

“I believe that the public safety related to the fire department in our community is contingent and inextricably tied to the wellbeing of the firefighter workforce,” Styron stated in a May 22 deposition, according to court documents. “If repeatedly and consistently they have expressed a need for new leadership, and that if that is not provided to them, they will leave for other communities. That poses a public safety risk, and that is a problem that is solvable to prevent.”

In March, the Zionsville Town Council, which consists of all Republicans, unanimously denied a request from Styron, a Democrat, to discharge VanGorder at one of its bi-monthly, public council meetings. The request effectively would have demoted VanGorder to his position in the department prior to becoming fire chief. During an examination, VanGorder said he became a fire chief of Zionsville’s volunteer fire department in the early 1990’s by being elected by members of the volunteer department. He was then hired as a paid, part-time fire chief of the ZFD in 2000 and became the full-time chief in 2007.

Publicly, Styron did not give a reason for her request, and the council found the evidence she presented to the council privately to support her request for demotion insufficient.

Garrett

“She has given us multiple different (alleged) rationale as to why he should be demoted – everything from criminal allegations to the culture and moral issues, to not being able to work with him,” Zionsville Town Council President Josh Garrett said June 3. “So, it’s been a constant moving target to understand why (she wants to demote VanGorder).”

Styron and town officials declined to comment on the matter. VanGorder and his legal counsel also declined to comment.

Directly after the meeting, Styron met with VanGorder, placed him on a one-week, paid administrative leave and had him escorted by police out of Town Hall. Styron also assigned VanGorder to be the project manager of an undisclosed project when he returned, reporting directly to the mayor and deputy mayor, though he retained his position as fire chief, which members of the town council argue equated to a demotion without the council’s approval. Amanda Vela, the town’s public information officer, said VanGorder has retained his title as fire chief since March.

Soon after the town council rejected Styron’s request in March, she filed a lawsuit against the council, in which she asked for a judge to clarify whether the town’s mayor has the authority to demote upper-level policy-making positions, including the fire chief, without the approval of the town council. Specifically, the lawsuit questions language in the town’s 2014 reorganization resolution, which outlines the powers of the mayor and town council.

The town council argued Styron’s interpretation of the reorganization resolution is a way of giving the mayor unilateral power to fire department heads.

“She just needs to take the extra step of demoting a department head before firing him or her,” the town council wrote in a motion for summary response filed May 28. “This firing would elude any Town Council review even when a mayor terminates a department head.”

Styron and her legal team unsuccessfully argued the resolution, other legal precedents and Indiana statutes granted her the power to demote department heads.

VanGorder has counter-sued, claiming in court documents that he has not had access to numerous fire department computer applications since February, including some managed by the fire chief. He claims Styron asked him to step down from his position as chief in July 2020. He retained legal counsel shortly thereafter.

An injunction has been filed on behalf of VanGorder to get back what he believes are his duty-bound responsibilities as fire chief. A hearing for the injunction is scheduled for July 1-2.

In his ruling, Kincaid stated that action by the mayor “in the nature of supervising a department head or directing executive policy which stops short of removing core management authority from a department head is not prohibited; and the action taken by the Mayor in the matter by which the Fire Chief’s core authority has been removed, which continues at this time, exceeds the authority of the Mayor under the 2014 Reorganization.”

The town council issued a joint statement on behalf of its members following the ruling.

“In 2014, the citizens of Zionsville overwhelmingly voted in support of the reorganization,” the council stated. “That document delineated roles and responsibilities for all Zionsville elected officials. We are pleased the court has upheld those rules and continues to support the will of the citizens of Zionsville. This has always been about public safety. Part of the Council’s role is to ensure the right personnel are leading our town departments. We have been fortunate to have had Chief VanGorder lead the department for 25 years and look forward to him continuing in that role.

“We appreciate the professionalism of the Zionsville Fire Department during this legal clarification process. At no point did we doubt the abilities of the men and women of (the) ZFD to continue to respond to emergencies and we are grateful for their dedication to our community. The Council is committed to working with Chief VanGorder, Zionsville Fire Department personnel, International Association of Firefighters Local 441 and Mayor Styron to continue to keep our citizens safe and keep Zionsville moving forward.”

Styron issued a statement June 4 following the determination.

“It’s a true honor to serve as an elected official in this town,” Styron stated. “With the uniqueness of our structure of government, the need for clarity on roles and responsibilities arose due to language in the Reorganization document and powers which had been granted to the Mayor. Having the best leadership we can have at the Zionsville Fire Department matters to me, as Mayor and as a citizen. As Town executive, I took action on behalf of the best interest of the Fire Department. The court ruled that the Mayor does not have the authority to demote the Fire Chief without Town Council approval. I am committed to moving forward and continuing to work on behalf of the citizens of our town. There will be no further comment at this time.”

Court documents also state Jeff Papa, a Zionsville Community Schools board member, a former mayor, former town council president and architect of the reorganization resolution, weighed in on the intentions of the resolution when he wrote the initial draft. In an April 23 deposition, Papa said, “We did not want professional department heads subject to the political whims of elected officials,” according to court documents.

“There was also some hope to spread out the responsibility as we merge with small townships, to say that no one (has) complete power to change department heads,” Papa said.

Styron, who spoke with Papa prior to the deposition concerning his intentions when writing the resolution, filed a motion to strike Papa’s deposition as evidence, arguing the resolution is not ambiguous, and the writer’s intentions do not speak for the resolution.


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