CROFTON, Neb. — Citing the need for a quorum under state law, a Nebraska state official has ordered a March 12 mail-in special election to fill two vacancies on the Crofton City Council.
The vacancies were created by two circumstances: when former councilwoman Sharol Lawhead became mayor in the November election and when councilman Tom Allen resigned at the December meeting.
Then-Nebraska Secretary of State John Gale issued a Dec. 18 call of special election. He noted Crofton lacks a quorum until it fills the vacancies on its four-member council.
The lack of a quorum has created a limbo when it comes to the daily city services. The question has risen whether the council holds the authority to regularly meet and to pay bills, including payroll and vendors.
For now, Crofton city government is operating on a skeleton basis, according to City Administrator Charlie Hendrix. City Hall is open for designated hours during the week, and the city is operating with limited services.
Hendrix said she has worked with the Department of Labor about city employee issues.
“Staff has voluntarily agreed to perform minimum, necessary work. In exchange, I have agreed to put in claims with the Department of Labor for the Shared Time program,” she said.
“This should give some benefits to our employees in the interim, so that they can continue to sustain their households. It’s hoped that the council will award back pay for the minimum work performed once a quorum is restored.”
Hendrix has also worked on arrangements with the city’s vendors. “Thus far, most vendors have been very reasonable, she said.
Crofton Police Chief Pat Schmidt sent emails to the Knox County Sheriff Don Henery and Knox County Attorney John Thomas, saying he was closing the Crofton police department after Jan. 1 because of the non-payment of officers.
The Knox County Board of Supervisors (county commissioners) discussed whether the sheriff’s office and the Nebraska State Patrol would handle Crofton law enforcement, according to minutes
Hendrix confirmed the city would receive outside law enforcement assistance.
“Nebraska State Patrol has told us that they will also assist in providing assistance to our local law enforcement during this time,” she saidk. “We are grateful to all of the county and state agencies that are providing assistance to us and our community during this time.”
In his call for the special election, Gale said he was following state law “after receiving notice from the City of Crofton that vacancies in one-half or more of the seats exists.”
In setting up the March special election, Gale designated Knox County Clerk Joann Fischer to conduct the election on his behalf. The candidate filing deadline is 4:30 p.m. Friday, with petitions due in Fischer’s office.
Two candidates are running so far, according to Hendrix.
“Arlene Steffen and Don Meink have paid (filing) fees to our office,” she said.
Lawhead said she was aware last month of the mandated special election after talking with Knox County Clerk Joann Fischer, who also serves as Knox County election commissioner.
“Joann said, if you have two council members, the state law automatically kicks in and you will have a special election,” Lawhead said. “I wasn’t surprised (to learn of Gale’s action), and I don’t have a problem with the election.”
However, disagreement has arisen over whether the City of Crofton can hold legal meetings and conduct city business in the meantime — including the payment of employees and vendors.
Lawhead said she has consulted Norfolk, Nebraska, and Neligh, Nebraska, attorneys about the matter of continuing city meetings and operations. Those attorneys advised her that the Crofton council has a quorum with her as mayor and councilmembers Larry Peitz and Pam Berendsen.
The council will meet at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Monday) at Crofton City Hall, Lawhead told the Press & Dakotan. The meeting will conduct business and is open to the public, she said.
“We just want to pay our bills and keep things going, without penalties or hurting our credit,” she said.
However, the Nebraska attorney general’s office has provided a different interpretation on the quorum question.
In a Dec. 14 letter, Crofton city attorney Daniel Hendrix sought the Nebraska attorney general’s opinion on whether the Crofton council holds a quorum. In particular, he referenced actions taken at a Dec. 12 council meeting.
In a letter signed by Attorney General Douglas Peterson and Assistant Attorney General Leslie Donley, they said they weren’t offering a formal legal opinion.
“We have no statutory authority to provide legal opinions to local political subdivisions, like the City of Crofton, and we do not do so,” the letter read.
However, the AG’s office did point out pertinent statutes, noting they weren’t giving a formal opinion.
“A plain reading of the two statutes set out above indicates that a majority of the elected members of the city council is required to constitute a quorum, and the mayor may vote when necessary to break a tie,” the letter said.
“Based on a four-member council, the presence of three members is necessary to reach a quorum. There is no provision in 17-105 which indicates that a quorum may be reached through the intervention of the mayor.
“In addition, there is nothing in the ordinance that would support the conclusion that the mayor could be counted as a member of the city council for purposes of a quorum.”
As for the Crofton special election, Gale’s order remains in effect even though he no longer serves in that capacity, Fischer said.
“We now have a different (Nebraska) secretary of state,” she said. “But John Gale issued his notice on Dec. 18, and it remains in effect. I’m carrying out his order.”
The Crofton special election became necessary because the council currently can’t appoint new members, Fischer said. Once Allen left the council, the board lacked the quorum to name replacements, she added.
Under Nebraska law, the Crofton election could see write-in candidates, Fischer said.
“However, those candidates would need to file an affidavit as a write-in candidate,” she said.
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