Zionsville mayor can’t demote fire chief without town council’s approval, COA affirms

The mayor of Zionsville cannot unilaterally demote the town’s fire chief without approval from the town council, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has affirmed.

The ruling came after Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron asked the Zionsville Town Council to consider demoting longtime Fire Chief James C. VanGorder based on a letter from the town’s human resources director.

The HR letter described “(c)omplaints of intimidation and bullying, unfair application of policies, lack of transparent hiring and promotional processes[,] and an increasingly toxic culture” at the fire department under VanGorder’s authority. It also cited concerns that in response to the complaints, VanGorder “does not take responsibility for any leadership flaw, large or small” and, when questioned about the issue, “is deflective and argumentative, with behavior ranging from pacifying to intimidating.”

Styron requested that the town council take a vote on the proposed demotion to VanGorder’s last-held merit rank. If the council didn’t act, the mayor said she would have “the authority to make this decision on [her] own.”

When the seven-member council unanimously denied the request, Styron presented VanGorder with a revised job description for the role of fire chief that limited his duties and responsibilities largely to advising the mayor and her staff “on technical and administrative matters regarding assigned projects,” among other things.

Styron also filed a complaint for determination of powers against the Town Council of Zionsville pursuant to Indiana Code § 36-4-4-5, asserting that as a corollary to her power of appointment, she also had the authority to demote the fire chief. The town council denied that assertion, and both parties moved for summary judgment.

The Boone Superior Court ruled for the town council, holding that the demotion of the fire chief and the removal of his core management authority were equivalent to the discharge of a department head.

Specifically, the trial court concluded the mayor couldn’t take such an action without the approval of a majority of the council under the town’s 2014 plan of reorganization. Language in the 2014 reorganization resolution states that the mayor “must have the approval of a majority of the town council before the executive may discharge a department head.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed in a Monday opinion. It noted that while the Indiana Code is silent on the authority of a mayor of a second-class city to remove an officer, the 2014 reorganization resolution is explicit: To discharge a department head, the mayor must have the council’s approval.

“As our Supreme Court recognized in (Kole v. Faultless, 963 N.E.2d 493 (Ind. 2012)), the Act grants political subdivisions ‘full and complete authority’ to ‘transfer responsibilities between offices and officers.’ … But that authority is granted to the political subdivision, not unilaterally to the Mayor,” Judge Edward Najam wrote, referencing the Indiana Government Modernization Act.

The COA also found that Styron’s interpretation of “discharge” in the resolution would allow her to avoid the prohibition against a unilateral “discharge” by simply demoting and reassigning a department head without terminating his employment. But that approach is prohibited, it concluded.

The appellate court further rejected her argument that State v. Reichert, 226 Ind. 358, 80 N.E.2d 289 (1948), and State ex rel. Warzyniak v. Grenchik, 177 Ind. App. 393, 400-01, 379 N.E.2d 997, 1002 (Ind. Ct. App. 1978), established that her power to appoint the fire chief comes with an implied, corollary power to demote an appointed chief. It held that even if the mayor of a second-class city has the implied power to unilaterally demote the chief of the fire department, provision ZR2A24 of the reorganization resolution expressly restricts that power and provides that the mayor and the town council share that authority.

Finally, the appellate panel rejected Styron’s contention that the Indiana Constitution authorizes her to demote a department head whom she has appointed.

The case is Emily Styron, Mayor of the Town of Zionsville, Indiana v. Brad Burk, Alex Choi, Joseph Culp, Josh Garrett, Craig Melton, Jason Plunkett, and Bryan Traylor, Town Council of Zionsville, Indiana, and James C. VanGorder, 21A-PL-1521.

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