A long-running but largely off-the-record issue was made public Tuesday night as East Carbon council members broached the subject of Mayor Orlando LaFontaine's chronic absence from both the council chambers and city boundaries.
"He can continue to be excused," said council member and Mayor Pro Tem David Maggio after learning of LaFontaine's absence. "However, I don't think he can continue to be paid."
Maggio's comments were met with agreement from council members Darrel Valdez and David Avery, who commented that he had been receiving calls "once again" concerning the mayor's absence.
Maggio continued to discuss the fact that he had been filling in as mayor for sometime and wished to discuss LaFontaine's intentions as East Carbon City's Mayor.
As the council had not yet convened their session at this point, they decided to bring the subject up once again under new business.
After a lengthy session, Maggio once again broached a subject which has been roundly discussed outside the council chambers, but almost never within.
"This absentee mayor that we have - and I like Orlando, don't get me wrong, he is my friend - but I don't even know if he's a resident anymore," quipped the Mayor Pro-Tem. "We need to have a working group. Not just a bunch of nothing getting done or one guy trying to do 14 things and everybody else going in six different directions. We need to have a seated mayor and we need to get the business of the city done. If he doesn't feel that he wants to do this any longer then he needs to step down."
Maggio declared that he has filled the position of mayor since January, during which time LaFontaine has been absent from the city.
"Eight months I have been mayor pro tem, and he's made two meetings," Maggio said. "That's not acceptable. I just don't think that is right. I don't know how the rest of the council feels but I am going to speak my mind and my mind is that either he gets on the horse or gets off."
While the council as a whole commented that LaFontaine's absence has been a problem for the city, the mayor stated in response that he is getting more of East Carbon's business done while on vacation than local city officials are doing in his absence.
"They can't get anything done without me," said LaFontaine via telephone on vacation from the California. "Even though I'm on vacation, I'm on the phone all day long putting out the city's fires. They won't move forward on anything without me there to walk them through on the phone."
When asked about his physical absence, not withstanding the work he is providing via phone, the mayor continued to be defiant.
"I deserve to have a vacation, everybody takes a summer vacation. When my kids go back to school, I'll be back," he said. "I make $400 a month and this is a part time position but I have been a full time mayor for some time."
According to LaFontaine, he was putting in 60 hour-plus weeks for the first four years of his tenure as city mayor. During his election to a second term, LaFontaine faced a good deal of opposition both during the campaign and from within the council. The opposition wore on him. City officials took steps to curb his use of city vehicles and also made an issue of his cell phone usage. As he was criticized more and more by officials, LaFontaine was at council meetings less and less.
According to city records obtained from city recorder Liz Marquez; LaFontaine made 12 of 24 sessions in 2010, 15 of 24 in 2011 and has missed five of the 12 meetings held so far this year.
Regardless of lack of face time in the city where he is chief executive, LaFontaine felt the residents of East Carbon were being misled by the council.
"There are no projects going on right now, they are just spending money," he contended. "There have been no projects over the past two years. I would rather step down than do that. I have to be involved with some type of project, not just spending of revenue the city doesn't have."
As a matter of record. The council talked with engineers from Jones and DeMille about taking over their current cemetery project at their Aug. 14 meeting. The council also moved forward with a current change to their interlocal agreement with Sunnyside and heard from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation concerning current property challenges in the city. City officials also purchased two state surplus trucks with budgeted funds.
For the council, LaFontaine's pay was just as central to the discussion as was his attendance. Last year, the council voted down a motion to limit the pay of city officials who habitually missed council sessions. A vote which runs contradictory to the council's discussion concerning the mayor.
When asked why they had voted down a concrete way by which to compel attendance, the council recalled their vote.
"We went through the ordinance and everything was hunky-dory. We were going to pass it. Sunnyside Mayor Doug Parsons was here and he stood right there and told us, remember that $400 a month you get isn't for sitting in these meetings, it's for what you do in between," explained council member David Avery. "And that kind of skewed things and bingo. The vote went the other direction."
Avery and Maggio were joined by council member Valdez.
"This isn't the first time. The same thing happened last year. Remember, right after Community Daze he left and was gone until October," said Valdez. "So, what I'm saying is that we are paying for something we aren't getting."
While the council could recall just why they had struck down the ordinance which has allowed LaFontaine to conduct his business via phone. The question of why they had waited so long to address this issue was more difficult to pin down.
"I don't know," said Maggio plainly when asked why the council had waited almost two years to discuss LaFontaine's chronic absences. "But the reality is the city is without an administrator and that can't stand."
Even though Maggio brought the issue before the council and voiced his problems with LaFontaine's absence, he was complimentary of much of the work the East Carbon City Mayor had done.
"I think he was the most hands-on mayor we have ever had for his first four years," concluded Maggio. "However, he's most hands-off mayor we have ever had the whole of his second term."
The council decided to conduct a work meeting with LaFontiane to gauge his interest in staying mayor and to possibly levy an ultimatum, an ultimatum that LaFontaine says he will rebuff.
"Given an ultimatum, I would step down," he said. "I can't do this job forever, even if I finish my term, I only have one more year. I am looking at moving into the private sector. They are going to have to get used to running things without me eventually."