For the residents of Mount Sterling, to say the last several years have been a challenge would be to understate the stresses and frustrations that the village has endured. After numerous changes in leadership, resignations and terminations, the town will go into the new year with a fresh approach.
In January, a new council and new mayor will meet for the first time with the shared goal of getting their community back on track and back into the hands of its people.
Newly elected mayor, William “Billy” Martin, spoke of the village’s recent history and the long road ahead.
“I have only been mayor for maybe a month now,” he said. “I have been made aware of all the issues the town faces and we’re working every day to try and fix the issues we’ve had.” Mayor Martin was elected in November, taking the place of Lowell Anderson who moved into the mayoral position following the resignation of Charlie Neff.
2012-2016 and fiscal emergency
On July 18, 2016, just before 8 a.m., former Mt. Sterling village administrator, Joe Johnson, was arrested in Jackson County by Madison County Sheriff Jim Sabin and other deputies. Johnson had resigned earlier in January citing too much negative pressure from residents on social media. Not long after Johnson’s exit, a number of other village officials stepped down.
After the dramatic shift in administration, which included Johnson’s resignation, former mayor Neff’s resignation and former fiscal officer Vickie Sheets’ resignation, the village was audited by the state. Certain village funds were found missing or unaccounted for in the records.
Following an investigation by the auditor’s office which found a startling imbalance in the numbers, Johnson was charged with stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from village funds and falsifying records to cover it up, starting in 2012. Further investigations found Johnson had purchased vehicles, lawn equipment, and altered the payroll system to increase his salary.
Johnson was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison and plead guilty to racketeering, theft, theft in office and money laundering. Earlier this year, Neff was also charged and sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of community control. He was found guilty of theft in office, falsification and dereliction of duty after being tied to the Johnson case.
With the more than $700,000 taken from village funds by Johnson, a lack of financial records from 2011 and 2012, and the realization of a major deficit in the village’s general fund, the State Auditor’s office put Mount Sterling under a “fiscal emergency” in June 2017.
According to the auditor’s office only one of the following requirements can put a local governmental body into fiscal emergency: “Failure, for lack of funds, to make all payroll to employees that continues beyond 30 days, or a period of agreed-upon extension that cannot last more than 90 days from the original time for payment. Default of payment on any debt obligation for more than 30 days. An increase in the inside millage by the County Budget Commission that results in a reduction for any of the overlapping subdivisions or taxing districts.” The other requirement being that there’s a deficit of more than 16 percent of the village’s income.
Once the emergency has been declared, “the village then comes under the oversight of a financial planning and supervision commission. The Auditor of State serves as the ‘financial supervisor’ to the commission,” according to the auditor’s website.
Following Neff’s resignation, then council President Pro-Tem Lowell Anderson became mayor and led the village through 2016 and 2017. During the change, Johnson was replaced as village administrator by John Martin, who worked to create a structure for the village’s payroll and human resources needs. Sheets’ fiscal officer position was filled by Courtney Bricker.
Martin, however, was abruptly terminated in October after a recommendation from the village’s finance committee citing Martin raising wages without approval by council. Martin responded by saying he was following the specifications of the restructured payroll system.
After Martin’s termination, Bricker stepped into the administrator’s shoes, helping to take on those responsibilities in addition to her job as fiscal officer. Moving forward, the village has decided not continue with the village administrator position and, instead, passed legislation which would divide the responsibilities among the mayor, fiscal officer and utilities supervisor.
The decision led to Bricker moving from a part-time village employee to full-time and also receiving the title of Clerk of Council. Misty Vance, previously a part-time employee for the water and sewer department, was also hired on full-time for the village.
“Those two girls are doing an amazing job,” Mayor Martin said. “With their help, we’ve made a lot of progress with all this.”
Optimism in the new year
Despite all that has happened in the last few years, Mayor Martin is looking to the new year with hope and resolve.
“We’re trying to get the community up and running properly. We have a lot of plans but those plans take time,” Mayor Martin said. “We are working everyday putting policies into effect and we hope that the village is patient with us.”
He said he is “very optimistic” about the new council and the village’s direction and “I know we’ll be in a better place a year from now.”
There are three incoming council members taking office next week: Rebecca Martin, Tammy Vansickle and Thomas Ward. Each incoming council member seems optimistic moving into the new year.
“Mt. Sterling has, of course, been through a lot of changes in the last few years,” said Rebecca Martin. “I hope to continue to move forward, through council, through the Chamber of Commerce, to start growing Mt. Sterling again. I want council to be a mouthpiece for the residents and to work toward getting their wishes granted.”
Tammy Vansickle shared the sentiment, saying that council works for the village, not the reverse. “I’m a lifelong resident,” she said. “Part of the reason I even ran for council was I want to bring the voice of the people to the village and to bring in transparency.”
That transparency and true residential representation seems to be important to all of them. Thomas Ward, the third incoming council member, said running was something he felt he had to do.
“It’s easy to sit in the audience and watch, it’s another to get involved,” Ward said. “I have a lot of respect for all the members of council and I will do my best, moving forward, to make sure the people are represented.”
Mount Sterling’s first council meeting of 2018 will be on Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. Meetings are always open to the public and Mayor Martin has brought back the public comments portion of the meeting so he and council both encourages the public to participate.
Reach Michael Williamson at 740-852-1616, ext. 1619.