CROFTON, Neb. — After receiving sudden resignation from one of its members, the Crofton City Council is keeping the seat vacant — for now.
At the Sept. 4 regular meeting, Councilor Pam Berendsen submitted a letter of resignation after serving less than one year of her four-year term. She turned in the letter to Mayor Sharol Lawhead during the business meeting.
“Her resignation wasn’t accepted at the last meeting,” Lawhead told the Press & Dakotan.
At Tuesday night’s special meeting, the Crofton council did not accept Berendsen’s resignation, as a motion died for lack of a second.
Tuesday’s event signals the latest in what has been a period of swift change among the Crofton city leadership. Lawhead and two councilors were elected last November to their positions, and two other councilors were elected last March in a special election.
The remaining two members of the five-person board were elected in 2018.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Lawhead called for a motion on Berendsen’s resignation, which was initially met with silence from councilors Arlene Steffen, Don Meink and Larry Peitz.
Steffen indicated she reluctantly made the motion to accept the resignation.
“I’m torn,” Steffen said, adding that she also realized that Berendsen held reasons for leaving the council.
In a Crofton Journal story, Berendsen’s letter of resignation said:
“I am resigning from the City Council effective immediately. Trust has clearly been lost by all parties involved. I therefore cannot represent the citizens of Crofton to the level I had been elected for,” she said.
“I am humbled that the citizens had placed their trust in me, and had this opportunity to serve the city of Crofton.”
Berendsen was not present at Tuesday’s meeting. At one point, Lawhead asked for her vote on a roll call before realizing her mistake.
“I’m so used to having Pam sitting here next to me,” the mayor said.
The Crofton city council has found itself surrounded in controversy during recent months.
The events started with the discovery of misappropriated funds by a former city clerk. After a series of sometimes contentious meetings, Mayor Wendell Strom decided against running for re-election.
Lawhead, who had been serving as council, successfully ran for mayor in last November’s election. Her move to the mayor’s spot opened up one council seat.
In December, councilor Tom Allen resigned his seat, opening up another vacancy which triggered a mandated special election.
Then-Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale ordered a city election last December when Crofton reached two vacancies on its four-councilor board, which also has an elected mayor. Nebraska law mandates an election when a city has 50 percent or more of its council seats become vacant.
The March special election brought the election of Meink and Steffen, who will serve through 2020.
Peitz and Berendsen were elected in 2018, and their terms run through 2022.
After Tuesday’s meeting, the Press & Dakotan sought clarification on the status of Berendsen’s seat. The P&D asked if the seat is considered empty, or if Berendsen will be considered absent when it comes to meetings and votes.
Lawhead said she expects the resignation will re-appear at the next regular meeting.
“We’ll address it again next month. We’ll have it on the agenda,” she said. “We just want to make sure how things are going. At that time, it will give them a month for everyone to consider whatever they want to do.”
Lawhead said the city wouldn’t be seeking application for Berendsen’s seat.
“We’re not advertising for a new councilor. I don’t want to do that,” the mayor said.
Lawhead didn’t have any further clarification on the Berendsen’s seat or status.
“She resigned and we just didn’t accept it,” the mayor said. “That’s the only way I can answer it. That’s a legal question. But we do have a quorum.”
City Attorney James McNally of Neligh, Nebraska, had left the building at that point and was unavailable for comment.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Lawhead and the council met for 30 minutes n executive session with McNally and Norfolk, Nebraska, attorney Kathleen Rockey about pending litigation. Rockey has been retained as counsel for a lawsuit in which the Hendrix Law firm has sued the city for breach of contract and violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Back in open session, the council approved the continued discussion on resolution of the lawsuit of the Hendrixes versus the City of Crofton.
The Hendrix Law firm has filed a civil suit against the City of Crofton for the city’s termination of the law firm’s services.
Daniel Hendrix and Charlie Gail Hendrix, a husband and wife doing business as Hendrix Law, have filed suit in Knox County District Court. They are seeking compensation for what was owed under the contract terms, according to court records.
The couple, as plaintiffs, demand a trial by jury on all eligible issues.
In their suit, the Hendrixes claim breach of contract. They are seeking the remaining sums of money due and owing under the terms of the contract from Jan. 14, 2019, through October 2020. The total amount due and owing for this time period is $96,010.84.
The Hendrixes say, on Jan. 14, 2019, despite lacking a quorum, the city terminated the firm’s contract for legal and administrative services after discussing the move in a closed session.
In addition, the Hendrixes have filed a second claim that the city violated the open meetings act when it discussed the termination of Hendrix Law “and did so in secret.”
The Hendrixes are seeing the payment of attorney fees under this claim.
In their suit, judgment is requested for this amount plus any costs, fees, pre- and post-judgment interest the court determines to be equitable.
The Hendrixes are represented in the suit by Domina Law Group of Omaha.
The City of Crofton has filed a response disputing portions of the Hendrixes’ claims. Those areas of dispute include Lawhead’s ability to vote on the contract as mayor, whether a quorum was achieved and the accuracy of the Hendrixes’ description of certain events.
The city also contends that no response is required for certain legal conclusions by the Hendrixes.
In addition, the city has filed affirmative defenses in its response to the lawsuit.
A pre-trial conference has been set for Nov. 26 at 11 a.m. in the district courtroom at the Knox County Courthouse in Center, Nebraska.
• In other action, the council approved the new fiscal year budget, which must be filed by Sept. 20.
The new budget contains total available resources of $1.8 million, total disbursements of $1.395 million and a balance fund cash reserve of $413,419.77. The property-tax request stands at $176,196.
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