Attorneys for Democrats, Clay reach deal that puts city’s lawyer in hot seat

A Marion Superior Court judge on Friday approved a settlement between foes on the Indianapolis City-County Council that will place a more neutral arbiter as parliamentarian at Monday’s council meeting where a vote to remove Stephen Clay as president is on the agenda.

Eight council Democrats and former council clerk NaTrina Debow had asked Judge Thomas Carroll for a temporary restraining order, alleging that council President Stephen Clay’s move to fire DeBow and the council's attorney was illegal and in retaliation for moves that could put his presidency in jeopardy.

The settlement resulted in the plaintiffs dropping—for now—their request for the restraining order and to reinstate attorney Fred Biesecker.

According to the judge, a lawyer from Mayor Joe Hogsett's Office of Corporation Counsel will serve as parliamentarian for what’s sure to be a contentious meeting.

Karen Celestino-Horseman, the lawyer for the councilors and clerk, said she was “delighted with the outcome."

“The whole objective was to make sure that Monday evening’s council meeting is conducted fairly that [due] process is respected,” Celestino-Horseman said. She said the city's attorney will not "take a side and will rule according to the law and the rules.”

Linda Pence, Clay’s attorney, also said she was “thrilled with the outcome” and said Democrats didn’t get what they wanted.

“They did not get the relief they requested,” Pence said. “They can portray it as wanting a fair parliamentarian but they wanted the return of their own lawyer who behind the back was not treating President Clay with respect he deserved.”

Pence also accused Clay’s fellow Democrats of engaging in a smear campaign against Clay and said he “wants to be one of the best presidents that’s ever served the council.”

Pence also said she thought planned efforts to remove Clay at Monday’s meeting are “questionable” legally and that people should "stay tuned"—hinting that Clay himself may legally fight if he is removed.

“How can you have a vote of no confidence when you haven’t even allowed the man to prove himself and his capabilities,” Pence said. “This was a sneaky sneaky attack and we’ll just have to see how it plays out."

Clay’s team proposed making attorney Suzannah Overholt, an attorney at SmithAmundsen, the same firm Pence works for, the parliamentarian for the meeting because "she’s fair, she’s objective, she’s a terrific lawyer,” Pence said.

But Celestine-Horseman objected, stating that SmithAmundsen is working on Clay's legal behalf and thus Overholt "cannot do anything that is adverse to Stephen Clay."

The eight members of the council and clerk sued Clay on Feb. 8, asking the court to grant a temporary restraining order restricting Clay or those acting for him from “taking any action to prevent DeBow or the council’s general counsel Fred Biesecker from performing their legal duties.”

Clay’s short tenure as council president, which he said would improve bipartisanship, so far has caused only more rancor between and within the parties.

It all started when Clay challenged former President Maggie Lewis for the council presidency—and won with a minority of Democratic votes and the majority of Republican votes, which Lewis and others called a “coup.”

Shortly after being elected president, Clay gave committee chairmanships to Republicans, which even his Democratic backers said went too far.

That caused Democrats to take steps to remove Clay from office.

Clay followed that move up by firing Biesecker and DeBow. He also alleged that Lewis improperly doled out raises to council staff members, including DeBow, and that personnel files were missing from the council office and shredded. DeBow disputed Clay’s allegations, saying that the raises were proper and that any documents kept in the council office were copies of documents that exist in the city’s human resources department.

The councilors who sued are Democrats Zach Adamson, Jared Evans, Christine Scales, Maggie Lewis, Frank Mascari, William Oliver and Vop Osili, and Republican Jeff Miller.

The plaintiffs say Clay, a Democrat, broke Indiana law and Marion County ordinances governing council personnel with the firing, and by denying other councilors the opportunity to receive advice from Biesecker.

"Such a court order is necessary because Clay's illegal, unauthorized and autocratic actions of attempting to summarily terminate and prevent both DeBow and Biesecker from performing their respective jobs, without authority from the full council, are continuing to harm the councillors, Clerk DeBow, and the public, by throwing the council into chaos and preventing it from performing the council's public business for the people of Marion County,” the complaint says.

The complaint alleges terminating DeBow without the direction of the full council was unlawful because “only the full council may appoint or terminate the clerk.”

The complaint also says firing Biesecker has effectively put new council business on hold because council members “require the general counsel to draft and review proposals that are to be considered by the full council.”

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