Lakewood trustees to talk censure of Village President Paul Serwatka

Trustee alleges board was kept out of the loop on recent hires

Paul Serwatka
Paul Serwatka

LAKEWOOD – Trustees will formally discuss censure of Lakewood Village President Paul Serwatka at an upcoming December meeting.

A special session will be held before the Lakewood Village Board’s next regularly scheduled meeting, set for 7 p.m. Dec. 12. The time of the special session has not yet been announced.

The special session comes as tensions between Serwatka and members of the board brewed in recent weeks while the village of about 4,000 residents went without an administrative leader for more than two months.

A censure is a formal expression of strong disapproval or harsh criticism that in government is adopted by a majority vote as a means of publicly reprimanding a person for offenses and correcting future conduct. Grounds for censure can include embezzlement, absenteeism and drunkenness, among others.

Trustee Richard Ritchie first presented the idea of censuring Serwatka during an Oct. 24 meeting when he requested an item regarding it be placed on the board’s next meeting agenda. Neither Serwatka nor the rest of the board audibly supported or opposed it, and it wasn’t on the agenda Nov. 14.

But during trustee comments in the Nov. 14 meeting, Ritchie read a prepared statement addressing what he and other trustees feel were Serwatka’s efforts to “stifle the board” and control decision making – in particular, the appointment of a new administrative leader.

Former Prairie Grove Village Administrator Jeannine Smith was appointed Lakewood chief administrative officer earlier in that same meeting. Audio of the meeting can be heard at village.lakewood.il.us.

In his statement, Ritchie reflected on the Lakewood Tax-Fighter campaign of early 2017, when Ritchie and fellow Trustees Amy Fues Odom and Phil Stephan all ran on the same slate, led by Serwatka, who was a trustee running for village president at the time.

The campaign was built on promises to cut taxes, reduce spending and form a new board majority full of transparency and ideas to better the community.

“Those words resonated. However, that message never became a reality,” Ritchie said. “There is little to no input by most board members that is accepted, which cannot be in the best interest of Lakewood residents.”

After finishing his statement, Ritchie asked trustees whether they wanted a special session meeting to discuss censure of Serwatka.

He requested a show of trustees’ hands. Joining Ritchie were Odom and Patrick Rexroat, whom Serwatka appointed in June, as well as Jason McMahon and Carl Davis. The only one who didn’t support the request was Phil Stephan.

Although the board voted earlier in the meeting, 5-1, in favor of appointing Smith, several trustees prefaced their votes by saying they either had little input on the candidate screening process or that they had no one else to compare Smith with, because she was the only candidate presented for board consideration.

Ultimately, they voted in favor of the appointment for a few reasons. The village is close to missing its property tax levy request deadline at the end of December, and trustees did recognize Smith as a quality candidate with an impressive resume. In addition, her contract only goes through April, so it was viewed as a low-risk hire.

Serwatka commented during discussion that some board members have a problem with him having more discretion than trustees when it comes to the hiring of key roles, and he said it will be difficult to fulfill campaign promises without the right people administrating the village and carrying out board direction.

And although it didn’t work out how certain trustees wanted, Serwatka said, when reached for comment, that he is not opposed to discussing the level of involvement trustees should have in the screening process for future hires. The hiring of Smith, whom he named as a top-two candidate for the job, was made even more clear when the other top candidates dropped out of the running, Serwatka said.

Serwatka maintains, however, that no rule or code was violated, and that he didn’t want to create a perception that there was anyone else available who was on the same level as Smith, adding, “I didn’t come here to play games.”

Serwatka believes that Ritchie’s push for censure of him – and their falling out of sorts since the election – stems from Ritchie’s proposal to construct a joint police department-golf club building on the property at RedTail Golf Club.

Serwatka said he has not entertained the idea at this point because their entire campaign was based on spending cuts, and a joint building proposal is not a priority.

“We’ve heard, overwhelmingly, that residents want us to maintain the infrastructure we do have,” Serwatka said.

In addition, Serwatka pointed to Ritchie publicly expressing – during a July 25 meeting where many residents spoke of their problems with severe flooding – his desire to explore the joint building proposal as a prime example of the root of Ritchie’s problem with Serwatka.

“In the very same meeting where we had 100-plus people in attendance regarding flooding issues, he says he wants this on the next meeting agenda,” Serwatka said, adding that the village will not spend money on “pet projects.”

Serwatka and the Lakewood Tax-Fighter slate sought to eliminate what they described as a top-heavy administrative structure that granted too much power to administrators and cost too much money. The village code already has been updated to turn over some powers to the Village Board.

But Ritchie also alleged that after the July firing of interim Village Manager Shannon Andrews, there was “little to no” discussion with board members and they were “refused the opportunity to review any resumes or speak with any other candidates other than the one Serwatka determined was the correct one for the position.”

Before the firing of Andrews, the village hired Lakewood-based consultant Julie Heather Meister in June to consult for it. Then, after Andrews was fired, officials hired Meister to the chief administrative officer position. But Meister resigned after a month. Smith now is in that role.

The Smith hire is not the only time in the past two months Serwatka faced some form of opposition from most of the board.

There also was Serwatka’s desire in October to pass a resolution aimed at holding elected village officials accountable for less-than-ideal meeting attendance, when more than half the board was rubbed the wrong way by the proposal.

The proposal called for board hearings if elected village officials were to miss three consecutive regular meetings or five regular meetings of the Village Board within a 12-consecutive-month period.

The idea was spurred, Serwatka said, by the attendance of McMahon and Davis. At the time, the pair had missed more than a third of the village’s regular meetings since May, according to village documents.

To Serwatka’s surprise and disappointment, the resolution garnered five “no” votes and one “yes” vote. Those voting against it, on the Tax-Fighter board majority, said it’s possible that they could miss meetings because of work.

If Lakewood trustees voted to censure Serwatka, it would not be the first time this year censure of a Lakewood official occurred. The board voted, 4-1, in June to censure McMahon after Serwatka and trustees deemed he was providing the public with “false misrepresentations.” Stephan, Odom, Ritchie and Rexroat voted in favor of censure. McMahon abstained from voting, and Davis voted against it.

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