MICHIGAN CITY — After a city councilman alleged in October that 40 or more pieces of equipment were missing or had been stolen from Michigan City Central Services, three representatives from that department attended last week’s council meeting to refute the claim.
Jessica Arnett, hired as the director of Vector Control in August, said the list Councilman Sean Fitzpatrick had presented was an old inventory sheet from 2012.
“A number of these items that are alleged to be missing are actually not missing,” she said, noting some are still accounted for in city inventory and others have been disposed of in accordance with city policy.
However, Arnett did provide the Michigan City Common Council with police reports filed in relation to five pieces of equipment totaling around $1,000 that she suspects have been stolen; and she said employees are being interviewed by both their supervisors and the Michigan City Police Department as part of an ongoing investigation.
Fitzpatrick thanked Arnett for the work she put into researching the status of Central Services’ equipment inventory.
“I’m appreciating this process,” he said, “because, hopefully in the future, we won’t have such instances and I won’t have to be involved. The only reason I’m involved is because your employees came to me.”
Arnett said the 2012 inventory sheet that had been provided to Fitzpatrick was taken from an employee’s desk without her knowledge; and she expressed frustration that the councilman had provided inaccurate information to the public.
“When our employees came to you – whether it was out of concern or some other motivation – I feel like you could have just come to us and asked,” she said. “We could have provided all of this weeks ago.”
Fitzpatrick said that he had, in fact, attempted to talk about the issue with Bob Zondor, superintendent of Central Services; but that Zondor had “swept (his concern) to the side.”
Zondor was present at Wednesday’s meeting, but allowed Arnett and David Farmer, director of the Street Department, to do most of the talking.
When asked what controls are in place to ensure city-owned equipment is accounted for, Arnett said she logs each outgoing tool twice daily – when it leaves from and when it returns to the facility.
Farmer said he does the same, but that he had instituted a new sign-out system recently and only had sheets as recently as late October with him to show as an example.
He also said the Central Services facility has both a locked tool crib and locked tool room, and a video surveillance system throughout the building.
When asked how often Farmer performed an inventory check, he said he had done so only three times since taking his position in 2012 – once in 2014, again in 2016, and most recently in 2019.
Council President Don Przybylinski was dissatisfied at the infrequency and irregularity of inventory taken on items purchased with city money.
And Councilman Paul Przybylinski raised a concern about why the department needs the 46 operational chainsaws accounted for on the current inventory list.
“If nobody else in the city administration wants to run the city departments like they’re supposed to be run, then the City Council, the new City Council coming in, if we have to, will wind up running every department in the city,” Don Przybylinski said. “Because we’re going to make sure that the money is being accounted for.”
But Arnett said the money is accounted for.
“I performed all of this research so that we could establish exactly what has been stolen,” she said, “and that’s what’s on that list; and that’s what’s been reported to the police. So, it’s not that we have no clue what’s gone missing; we actually do.”
When asked how many hours of work they had put into researching Central Services’ inventory, Arnett estimated she contributed at least 60 hours to the project, and Farmer said he had spent about 40 hours on it.
“I just hope we can keep that all in perspective before we launch another witch hunt,” said Councilwoman Sharon Carnes, implying the measures used to refute Fitzpatrick’s accusation were wasteful spending in themselves.
Carnes also said she believes the department heads are experts in their fields and should not be told by the council how and when to conduct their inventory analyses.
But Don Przybylinski disagreed, stating he wants Farmer, Arnett and Zondor to return before the council at its Nov. 17 meeting with a specific plan to ensure all city-owned tools and equipment are accounted for properly and in 6-month intervals.
“I’m not going to stand for it anymore,” he said. “If people aren’t accountable for what they’re doing, it’s time for them to move on to a new profession.”
Arnett said accountability is important to her as well, but she disagreed with Fitzpatrick’s methods for addressing the matter.
“There’s very few things that really get under my skin than dishonest people and a lack of accountability,” she said. “So, that’s why this project was so important to me. But it was also important to me in the sense ... when we make public and on-the-record comments, whether it’s tossing out figures ... that may not reflect reality, that carries a lot of weight; and I think we need to use discretion.”
In relation to the issue of missing or stolen inventory, the council passed an ordinance by a unanimous 9-0 vote that requires the city controller to report damaged and lost city-owned equipment, as well as payment of liability claims to the council going forward.
To view the ordinance in its entirety, go to emichigancity.com/cityhall/council/pdf/agenda110619.pdf.