GARLAND — Ralph Smith left a big void on the town’s board of commissioner and his former colleagues are divided on how to fill it.
During a Tuesday meeting, commissioners discussed methods to fill Smith’s vacant seat, after he resigned from his position in early June for health reasons. Mayor Winifred Murphy mentioned some of the expectations of the position and noted how commissioner positions are more than just coming to meetings once a month.
“When looking at our specific town, the mayor and the commissioners, all of us have big shoes to fill,” Murphy said. “We’re not like a lot of cities with large staffs.”
It’s a luxury small towns like Garland can’t have. While serving, some of Smith’s duties included working with the town’s sewer, water and public works matters.
“We’ve had people express interest in this seat,” Murphy said about selecting someone for the five-month appointment.
She suggested to use an application process to do so. But Commissioners S.J. Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Haywood Johnson wanted to select a defeated candidate who received the next highest numbers of votes during the past election. To that end, former commissioner Mike Toler, who lost a past election, was suggested as a candidate for the position.
“I feel, respectably, they should get an opportunity first,” Johnson said.
Murphy indicated that she has nothing against Toler, but wanted to give other citizens an opportunity to become involved with the local government process.
Board Attorney Michael Porter said many towns and cities throughout the state select an unsuccessful candidate from the most recent election. Porter said there’s no statutory requirements to follow the practice. Since the town uses a bipartisan system, any qualified resident many apply. But he suggested for the commissioners to make a decision soon for business matters.
“I would encourage you all to do this quickly as possible,” Porter said.
Following Porter’s advice, Murphy said it would be good public relations to engage residents, even if Toler would like to be involved in the process.
“I think that would look favorable for everybody,” Porter said.
During the gathering, commissioners did not make a motion to advertise for the position. Commissioner Denise Toler, wife of Mike Toler, was also present during the meeting. Commissioner Carolyn Y. Melvin was not present.
S.J. Smith later made a suggestion to still allow anyone interested to fill out an application to do so. But Murphy felt regardless of who wanted to apply, Toler would get the rubber stamp.
“This is not a democratic situation,” Murphy said.
Mayor speaks out
Following the meeting, Murphy submitted a statement regarding the process and possible nepotism matters. She said the Town of Garland and its citizens deserve commissioners who will advocate for the town, be fair, attend meetings, follow through on committee assignments and make informed decisions.
“Of the three commissioners who were present discussing the vacancy process, Commissioner Denise Toler (wife to Michael Toler), Commissioner S.J. Smith (uncle to Michael Toler), and Mayor Pro Tem Haywood Johnson, their feelings were not to go through a citizen process but to appoint Michael Toler because he was next in line,” Murphy said in a prepared statement sent to The Independent on Wednesday.
“(Johnson) said ‘the people have spoken,’” Murphy continued. “Yes, the people did speak in November 2013 and did speak not to re-elect the husband and wife team.”
She later stated that Denise Toler was appointed in June 2014 based on this same premise to go to the next person on the ballot. She said it was not illegal for Mike and Denise to serve together if they were elected by the people.
“It is highly unethical for them to be APPOINTED when the people spoke in November 2013 for this not to be the case,” Murphy said. “I encourage the citizens of Garland to speak out and talk with your commissioners.”
A decision is expected to be made in July. Whoever is selected is then required to file for the seat between July 6-17 if they want a chance to stay on the board through the election process.