Forest Heights council upholds mayor's suspension
Decision follows leader suing town, announcing she is seeking re-election
Forest Heights' Town Council decided early Thursday morning to continue the suspension of Mayor Andrea McCutcheon after determining she administered bonuses to town employees without council approval and failed to submit required financial reports.
The unanimous decision made during a Wednesday night meeting that lasted overnight came hours after McCutcheon, who was temporarily suspended Jan. 19, declared she would seek a second two-year term in the town's March 10 elections.
The continuation of the suspension also comes days after McCutcheon filed a lawsuit Jan. 31 against the town in Prince George's County Circuit Court, claiming her suspension was illegal and did not follow due process of the law. The suit names all six council members as defendants.
A court hearing for McCutcheon's civil suit is scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday. On Jan. 31, Circuit Court Judge Larnzell Martin Jr. denied her request for a temporary restraining order against the council members, said town attorney Kevin Best.
Mccutcheon declined to speak to a reporter at Wednesday's town meeting and has not returned requests for comment.
During the meeting, she called her suspension a "malicious" and "personal" attack. A handful of residents, including all mayoral and town council candidates, attended.
Councilwoman Jacqueline E. Goodall (Ward 1), who earlier declared she would run against McCutcheon, testified the suspension first came about after the mayor failed to provide the Town Council with the fiscal 2011's second quarter budget report by the required Jan. 16 deadline, instead filing it Jan. 19.
The council determined, with Best's advisement, the late filing violated the town's charter and was grounds for suspension.
An investigation by council members into McCutcheon's financial reports then revealed she signed checks totaling more than $4,000 for employee pay advances and bonuses without council approval, according to Goodall.
McCutcheon said she was unaware that offering bonuses without council approval was against the town's charter. Before becoming mayor, McCutcheon had represented Ward 2 as councilwoman since 2006 and also served as council president. McCutcheon said the budget report was late because the treasurer's office was busy completing financial audits from previous years.
According to Goodall's testimony, the investigation also revealed several undocumented purchases made with a town-administered credit card, including more than $300 spent in McCutcheon's hometown of Oakland, Calif. McCutcheon said she had all the receipts at home and would supply them to the council as soon as possible. The receipts demonstrate the purchases were made for town purposes and the town was properly reimbursed, McCutcheon said.
While the purchases were not a contributing factor in the mayor's suspension, they could result in criminal charges if the transactions are determined by a court of law to be illegitimate.
McCutcheon called Wednesday night's evidentiary hearing a "kangaroo court," referring to a sham legal proceeding, and said she was suspended without first hearing any evidence against her.
"We don't send the person to jail and then figure out what he's done later," said McCutcheon, who had to be escorted out of the meeting by Forest Heights police shortly after midnight when she failed to stop interrupting the proceedings.
Council President Jonathon Kennedy II (Ward 2), who has assumed McCutcheon's duties during the suspension, said after the hearing, "We always wish for a peaceful resolution to anything."
McCutcheon, whose suspension will expire when the next mayor is sworn in, will be challenged in the March 10 elections by Goodall and two former mayors her predecessor, Larry Stoner, and Myles Spires Jr., who himself was suspended from office in 2006.
The deadline to declare candidacy was 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Three council seats are up for election, including Goodall's seat. She has no challengers, but if she is elected to mayor the town would hold a special election to fill her Ward 1 seat.
Ward 2 Councilwoman Anne K. Reifsneider and Ward 3 Councilman William E. Clarke both filed for reelection and are being challenged by former council members Clifton Atkinson and Taunya Hines.
The council seats held by C. Lynn Smith-Barnes (Ward 1), Brian McLaurin (Ward 3), and Kennedy are not up for election until 2012.
Goodall said she wants to improve the way the town operates.
"I have seen Forest Heights go through a lot of political turmoil," she said. "I have worked very hard to move Forest Heights in a positive direction to make this a place where people want to live, and I keep seeing the same thing happen over and over again with different mayors."
Hines attended McCutcheon's evidentiary hearing and said she sees the ordeal as Goodall's personal battle.
"This was a railroad against [McCutcheon]," Hines said in public comment during the hearing.
Speaking to Goodall, she said, "You want to be mayor, and you went after her, and I don't like that." Goodall did not respond.
Like Goodall, Stoner has been an outspoken critic of McCutcheon. He said he wants to see a change in the town's ways.
"We need professional leadership, somebody that's going to come in and not have any personal issues dealing with people. Someone that comes in and is objective," Stoner said.
Spires was suspended of his mayoral duties in 2006 amid allegations he misused and mishandled funds from the town, prompting the council to change its charter to limit the mayoral term to two years. He was cleared of the charges in March 2009. Stoner replaced Spires as mayor.
Spires declined comment.
Spires' predecessor, Joyce Beck, was voted out of office by the Town Council in January 2006 after charges were filed against her for assaulting a police officer and council member. The charges were dropped.
When McCutcheon was elected, she pledged to better manage the town's finances and improve transparency and accountability among its officials. She has been credited with helping the town become more eco-friendly, hiring a town treasurer and fixing up the Town Administration Building.