Elkhart's new leadership team already has changed the city's tumultuous history.
In May, Jennifer McCoy was elected mayor and Judith Cantrell appointed city administrator. With the appointment of interim City Secretary Ami Ashworth earlier this month, the upper tier of Elkhart city government is new and, for the first time, entirely female.
“I honestly didn't notice until you pointed it out,” McCoy told the Herald-Press Friday. “We just made sure to hire the best, most motivated, and most qualified people.”
A former public works administrator for Palestine, Cantrell draws an annual salary of $50,000 as administrator, a position not held in Elkhart for many years. Restructuring city government with full transparency is one of her goals.
“We're not here for ourselves, or to feed our own egos,” Cantrell said. “We're here for the residents, the taxpayers. I'm going to institute an open-door policy for anyone to come in and discuss their concerns.”
McCoy, a freelance property inspector and volunteer firefighter, said she will soon have a city cell-phone so residents can contact her, day or night.
“I might not always answer,” she said. “But I will always respond, either by calling back or sending a text.”
The city council appointed Ashworth, also a former city of Palestine employee, as interim city secretary June 8, shortly after it fired former City Secretary Carla Sheridan.
While supporting full transparency, Ashworth told the Herald-Press it will take time. The filing system Sheridan left is nearly undecipherable, she said.
“Everything is in different folders, cabinets, and even rooms,” Ashworth said, standing amidst piles of files and stacks of papers in her new office. “There seems to be a lack of any discernible system; it would be virtually impossible to have full transparency until we clean this mess up.”
Ashworth discovered employee insurance and retirement had not been paid. “Health insurance was over $11,000 in arrears,” she said. “We fixed it, of course.”
Under terms of an August 2017 contract, Sheridan will receive a $100,000 lump sum severance package – something virtually unheard of in city government – and something Elkhart officials said will not be offered in the future.
“There's no severance if I'm terminated,” Ashworth said. “My package is whatever it says on my final paycheck.”
In addition to re-implementing a city administrator and hiring a city secretary, the city recently hired a code-enforcement officer. More changes are in the works, McCoy said.
“Shortly after Carla Sheridan was fired, several vendors resigned their positions,” she said. “City Attorney Blake Armstrong, bookkeeper Tina Harper, and City Auditor Kevin Cashion resigned.”
Elkhart Billing Clerk Donna Albanese, a city employee, also resigned.
Council will meet in special session Saturday to discuss appointing a new city attorney, as well as re-establishing a police department or creating a city marshal position. McCoy said, however, they will not fill the empty bookkeeper or billing clerk positions.
“Current staff can absorb those job duties,” she said. “Savings to the the city will be roughly $2,000 a month plus insurance for the billing clerk position, and up to $1,000 a month for a bookkeeper.”
Although concerned about employee turnover, Cantrell said it also paves the way for positive change.
“It definitely won't be the same old city government,” she said. “We needed a blank state to start over and move forward, and now we have it.”