Bethel's city council has placed City Manager Lee Foley on paid administrative leave as an outside attorney examines several city contracts and agreements, as well as an apparent violation of nepotism rules.
The mayor of the Southwest Alaska hub community of 6,300 is referring to city affairs as a "big mess" following Foley's suspension April 22 and the February resignation of Police Chief Larry Elarton.
The city council's seven members are now awaiting a report within the next week that could either clear Foley or possibly lead to his departure, said Councilman Mark Springer.
"As a result of all this, we could be patting him on the back and saying, 'Good job,' " Springer said. "Or we could be patting him on the back, saying, 'Go look for one.' "
Foley, who could not immediately be reached for comment, has been Bethel's manager -- the city's chief executive officer -- since 2008.
He's been under scrutiny since Feb. 11, when the city council voted unanimously to spend up to $40,000 on a lawyer to investigate a series of contracts and agreements, as well as what Mayor Joe Klejka describes as an existing violation of nepotism rules.
Foley's son works for Bethel's information technology department.
"Clearly, in Bethel municipal code, it says that the city manager can't have a family member working for them. And he hired his son," Klejka said in a phone interview.
The city's rules also prohibit department heads from employing their relatives, and the daughter of Elarton, the police chief who resigned, had been recently hired as a patrol officer. She later returned to her old job as a dispatcher, Springer said.
The council voted 5 to 2 at a meeting last Tuesday to put Foley on paid leave, replacing him temporarily with Port Director Pete Williams, according to a story in the Tundra Drums newspaper.
Foley was also told to relinquish all of his city property, though at the meeting he apparently refused to turn over a book containing police department records, according to the newspaper story. A city police officer was asked to make sure that Foley didn't remove any materials from his office, Springer said.
Foley had already been directed by the city council to turn over all of his city-related emails. He initially had been open to the investigation, saying in February that it could "offer suggestions that could help us do things better," according to local radio station KYUK.
The outside attorney hired by the city, Anchorage lawyer Michael Gatti, is also exploring a tangle of other questions raised by council members. Neither Klejka nor Springer would discuss the investigation in detail, but according to city council minutes, it covers:
• Employee complaints of intimidation by supervisors.
• Agreements between the city and Sutton Business Solutions, a firm owned by former city finance director Bobby Sutton, according to KYUK.
• Accounting of leave time used by the city's salaried employees.
• The awarding of city work to demolish Bethel's old police station.
• Agreements and leases of the city airport's sand pit by "private entities."
The city council has discussed the investigation at several meetings this year, both in public and in private executive sessions -- some of which have stretched for more than two hours.
Some Bethel residents have criticized council members for not revealing more details. Local contractor Harry Faulkner said in a phone interview that the city council had been micromanaging Foley and "questioning everything he did."
Faulkner added he was worried that the dispute between Foley and the city council would make it difficult for Bethel to find good candidates to fill vacant municipal positions.
"All they have to do is Google 'Bethel,' and they'll say, 'To hell with this place,' " Faulkner said. "There's certain leeways the departments have to take to get the job done ... I think it was all justifiable."
Klejka, the mayor, acknowledged that some of the city council's concerns are "pretty minor." However, he added, "we're getting concerned, because there were what appeared to be violations of Bethel municipal code."
"I am with Harry (Faulkner) -- I don't like to knee-jerk anything," Klejka said. "But it seemed like it was getting to the point where we needed to actually investigate this."
The issue of nepotism in Bethel government is not new, according to Springer.
He said that Foley's son had worked for the city for several years. While council members had been aware of his employment, Springer added, nobody had specifically raised it as a problem.
Councilwoman Heather Pike has also said that she would resign if the outside attorney deems her to be in violation of Bethel's rules, given that her "significant other" works for a Bethel department, according to KYUK.
In February, Foley submitted a proposal that would have replaced the city's strict nepotism rules with a more flexible set of guidelines, though the measure failed by a vote of 4 to 1.
The move would have allowed qualified relatives of municipal employees to work in Bethel government, according to the proposal, "as long as such employment does not, in the opinion of the city, create actual or perceived conflicts of interest."
Reach Nathaniel Herz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4311.
By NATHANIEL HERZ