URBANA — Mayor Diane Marlin says she will not allow city council members to use a longstanding reappointment process to derail the careers of police command staff or other veteran city employees.
Last week, Marlin pulled from the agenda the normally routine reappointment of 19 city employees in six departments, including police and fire, after learning that “at least one council member intends to ask for certain people to be treated individually” instead of being voted on as a group.
“This is not how this is supposed to work, and what it means is people’s jobs are on the line. It has never devolved to this until the last couple of years,” Marlin said of the annual appointment process that has been used for many years under Urbana’s mayor-alderman form of government.
Marlin was referring to the grilling that police Chief Bryant Seraphin received last year in the wake of Aleyah Lewis’ April 2020 arrest following a report of shots fired. Several officers were accused of using excessive force on the 21-year-old, who refused to comply with their commands.
The officers were cleared of any wrongdoing in multiple independent reviews. Lewis pleaded guilty a year later to resisting arrest and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
Dissected publicly for months, the incident resulted in recommendations for better police tactics.
What Marlin apparently did not expect is that the incident might result in potential employment retaliation by aldermen against police officers, six of whom are on the appointment list. Their service to the city ranges from almost 20 to about 27 years.
They are Seraphin, Deputy Chief Rich Surles and lieutenants Jason Norton, Dave Smysor, Matt Bain and James Cory Koker.
Only Koker, a 21-year employee who was a patrol sergeant in April 2020, was directly involved in Lewis’ arrest.
Word of the delay in the appointments quickly spread on social media, morphing into a rally for police support, even though other city employees are also affected.
The city’s three fire division chiefs have between 23 and 29 years of service in Urbana.
Marlin said she has not been told which of the appointees the council might want to handle individually and declined to say which of the aldermen had questions and concerns about the process.
Chaundra Bishop, a Democrat representing Ward 5, told The News-Gazette that she had concerns but declined to specify what they were.
“I need to collect all the information before I make the decision,” said Bishop, explaining that aldermen had been more focused on the budget of late.
Bishop is among five new aldermen who have been on the job less than two months. When they were seated May 3, it created one-party rule of the city by Democrats.
“Being new council members, we don’t know the right questions to ask,” she said, adding that staff is getting them the information to help them make informed choices.
Likewise, new council member Chris Evans of Ward 2 said he wanted more than just a list of names before voting.
"They're probably nice people and doing a good job, but with over $500,000 of salaries at stake, I have nothing to show my constituents to justify a vote yes. Neither should I vote no, because to do so, would grind the city government to a screeching halt," said Evans.
"The information I am looking for is the amount of education the candidates have, the amount of time they have served the city, their job description, what they accomplished over the last year, why they want to continue to serve the city, and what do they hope to accomplish over the next year. It could be just one page written by the candidates. All I am asking is for a little help to make an informed vote. These one-page descriptions of the candidates should be published on the city's website so the public can weigh in as to whether they want these people retained."
Ward 3’s Shirese Hursey, a veteran alderwoman with about two years of service, said she had no problems with the reappointments and fully supported all the people on the list.
“These are people who like to serve,” she said. “I don’t expect perfection, and when people start expecting perfection, I want to see them walk on water. You can’t have a 25-year career and not be called on the carpet about something.”
Likewise, Ward 7 Alderman James Quisenberry had no concerns about any individual employees.
“I agree the list of people reappointed on an annual basis has gotten too long,” said Quisenberry, who formerly served on the Champaign County Board. “It’s not good practice for a governing body that makes policy to approve or deny annual appointments for something like a grant writer.”
The other three aldermen — Grace Wilken, Jaya Kolisetty and Maryalice Wu — did not return calls to The News-Gazette.
Marlin said she and her staff have been answering questions about the appointments and the people in those posts while completing orientation for the new aldermen and trying to educate them about the budget.
The annual appointment of department heads happens at the end of the fiscal year, the same time the council is asked to approve the city’s spending plan.
Marlin explained that when former Mayor Laurel Prussing was in office, the appointment list “just exploded” to contain several mid-level positions that went beyond department heads and their second-in-command and that she has been paring the positions for a while.
Marlin was prepared to submit the list of 19 employees for reappointment at last Monday’s meeting when she received more questions a day earlier about background and qualifications.
“That’s why I pulled it. We are preparing a bio for each of the appointees so the council and public know who they are,” she said. “I’m fine with that.
“What I’m concerned about is this idea that we are going to focus on individuals,” she said, calling that process “destructive, stressful and demoralizing” to the appointees, all city employees and the entire community. “Their jobs are on the line. Police lieutenants and (fire) division chiefs do not have the right to revert to the union.”
She explained that when those employees were promoted to those positions, they forfeited that right, so failure to reappoint them would mean they are out of a job.
Marlin said that is patently unfair, especially for people who have been in service to the city for many years and worked their way into those positions.
“This is a team that has been working, especially this last year,” she said. “The amount of extra work this leadership team has put in for this city is unparalleled, and it’s extremely upsetting for them to be singled out and possibly finding themselves without a job.”
Marlin said she and the staff intend to go forward with getting the biographical information together for aldermen and presenting it.
However, to avoid the potential of anyone being singled out, she will likely remove police lieutenants and fire division chiefs from the reappointment list she presents at the June 28 meeting, something she said is her “prerogative” as mayor and that she has intended to do for a while because “I don’t think they belong there.”
“They don’t set policy, don’t hire or fire,” as the deputy chiefs or chiefs do, she said.
Marlin said she left them on the list in deference to the new aldermen’s concerns and in the interest of transparency.
“I strongly support every single person — the four lieutenants and the three division chiefs,” she said. “Their names were put forward because they are doing the job and their performance is excellent, and I also want them to continue working at the city of Urbana. I want them to continue working for the people of Urbana.
“I’m backing them.”