published Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Judge rejects ouster petition against East Ridge mayor


by Elizabeth Ryan
Audio clip

Jackie Fulks

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Mike Steele

East Ridge Mayor Mike Steele gets to keep his job.

A judge dismissed an ouster petition against Mr. Steele Tuesday, saying he found most of the claims against the mayor without merit.

Citing an earlier court ruling, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole wrote that “acts of good faith that, through ignorance, error or oversight, violate a charter or statute ... are therefore unenforceable from acts of willful misconduct” and do not constitute grounds for ouster.

Among the allegations included in the amended petition, filed March 30, were charges that Mr. Steele acted on the city’s behalf without the consent of the City Council and violated the city charter by hiring and firing city employees.

Mr. Steele said he expected the judge to rule in his favor, but said he made mistakes during his tenure as mayor.

“I admit there were some things I could have done differently and will do differently, because I’ve learned in the two years that there’s things in this position, with this charter, there’s things you can and cannot do,” he said.

When Mr. Steele took office, former City Manager David Mays was on sick leave and the mayor said he may have overstepped his bounds by trying to take on some of Mr. Mays’ jobs.

“I did step into some roles trying to give some direction and some leadership because there was none,” Mr. Steele said.

Lead petitioner Jackie Fulks said that, although the petition failed in court, it succeeded in pressuring the city to do “things correctly, which they weren’t doing until we filed that ouster.”

“We gave it our best shot, but we aren’t admitting defeat,” she said. “Am I bitter about the outcome? No. Not bitter at all.”

She also denied Mr. Steele’s assertion that the petition represented the minority view of the citizens in East Ridge.

“I went door to door to more than 300 people, and the response I got? ‘Good luck, honey, it’s not going to happen. We’d love to see it happen, but you’re banging your head against a steel wall because it’s been that way forever,’” Ms. Fulks said.

Ms. Fulks’ attorney, Charles Wright Jr., declined comment on the case.

In his opinion, Judge Poole found that grounds for ouster were not “clear and convincing” in citizens’ claims that Mr. Steele attempted to terminate former city attorney Cris Helton and rehire former City Manager Curtis Adams.

The ruling also orders the petitioners to pay the court costs for the three-day trial and opens the door for Mr. Steele to seek restitution for his legal expenses, as well.

Mr. Steele’s attorney, Dee Hobbs, said he would petition for the petitioners to pay his costs when the parties appear in court today.

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