Zionsville mayor files suit, seeks to clear up her power to demote department heads

Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron filed a lawsuit Tuesday that should determine whether the town’s council can keep her from demoting the fire department’s chief.

The seven-member, all-Republican Zionsville Town Council met and unanimously voted Monday to deny Styron’s request that Zionsville Fire Department Chief James VanGorder be demoted after she said multiple department members raised concerns about his leadership. She declined to answer questions about those concerns.

Styron, a Democrat, said the lawsuit is expected to support her authority to demote department heads and further delineate the roles of the mayor and the council.

“I believe the result of this legal action will provide clarity to my administration and to all future mayors of Zionsville about whether or not a mayor has the ability to select their own leadership team to run town departments,” Styron said in a written statement. “There must be no ambiguity.”

Styron said the town’s 2014 reorganization documents do not require her to get a majority of the seven-member town council’s votes to approve the demotion of an appointed department head, but the council disagrees.

According to a statement issued by the council, the mayor must have the approval of a majority of the council before a department head can be discharged — with the exception of the superintendent of parks and recreation, which requires approval of the Zionsville Board of Parks and Recreation.

The lawsuit is just the latest in a series of actions related to the matter.

Last summer, Zionsville’s administration realized the town’s police and fire safety boards had never been officially codified as the bodies responsible for exercising disciplinary powers over their respective departments. When the town council considered official recognition of the boards last October, it passed an ordinance that gave the council power to appoint three of its own members to the five-person body.

Styron vetoed the action and another that eliminated the mayor’s ability to demote a police or fire chief without a majority vote from the council or the safety board. State law does allow for the majority of a town council to vote against a police or fire chief’s firing, but Styron has previously said the law is quiet on matters of demotion.

“A discharge in this decision does not equate to termination,” the council’s statement reads. “Any further demotion or change in employment status – including termination – must abide by the state statutory requirements for members of the fire or police departments.”

Styron said she conducted her own assessment of the situation, but that assessment wasn’t enough to convince the council.

“I believe that the accusations levied against the department head lacked the documentation, due process, and evidence of wrongdoing or actions that would justify the discharge, or demotion, of this department head,” Zionsville Town Council Vice President Jason Plunkett said in a written statement.

Styron said she believes new leadership at the fire department is critical.

“While I am disappointed that the Council does not agree that new leadership at ZFD is in the best interest of the department and the Town, I am committed to working toward solutions which continue to keep our town safe,” she said in a statement.

The Zionsville Town Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 12, at 7 p.m. The lawsuit in Boone Superior Court 1 is Emily Styron, Mayor of the Town of Zionsville v. Brad Burk, et al., 06D01-2103-PL-334.

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