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Council questions city engineer's contract work

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By John Foster

The engineer for the City of La Grange barely kept his contract Sept. 2, despite an effort by city council members to terminate it due to claims of a conflict of interest.David Garber will remain La Grange’s city engineer after a vote to end his contract work failed 4-5.Council member Jason Taylor suggested cutting financial ties with Garber, who owns Garber-Chilton Engineers and Land Surveyors Inc., a private firm.In addition to Garber’s as-needed contract with the city, he is privately contracted for work with the Summit Parks development in city limits.Although he is under contract, not a city employee, Garber sometimes sends letters with the La Grange Public Works letterhead and signed with the title “city engineer.”The city has budgeted up to $48,000 a year – $4,000 per month – to pay Garber, depending on how much they ask for his services.According to city financial statements, the city paid $32,653.75 to Garber-Chilton Engineers and Land Surveyors from January through June.“This entire situation reeks of conflict of interest,” Taylor said.Council member Jean Knight said the city needs to steer from apparent conflicts.Mayor Elsie Carter said the situation is blown out of proportion and maintains her support for Garber, saying he has saved the city tens of thousands of dollars by ensuring projects are handled correctly.She said his only city business with Summit Parks has been to check on a complaint of equipment blocking the road.The controversy started when resident Jack Lockery called La Grange City Hall to learn why work had stopped on a sewer line flowing past his Zhale Smith Road home to Summit Parks.A city employee directed him to Garber for questions. Later that night, Lockery received what he calls a threatening phone call from the developer.Lockery filed an ethics complaint with the city about the situation.In its first ever decision, the La Grange Ethics Commission ruled 2-1 in Garber’s favor.Members of the commission determined since Garber is not a salaried employee – he doesn’t receive benefits, insurance or retirement – he is not in violation of ethics while working for the City of La Grange and working as an engineer for Summit Parks’ developer.According to theethics code, “No city government officer or employee shall undertake any employment or service, compensated or not, which might reasonably be expected to prejudice his independence of judgment in the exercise of his official duties.”Garber said Sept. 2 he started working on the development a year before working for the city. It is a private development constructed with private funds, he said.The only reason a government employee would be involved with the project is to approve sewer lines for the city system, he said. And that decision is handled by the La Grange Utilities Commission, not the City of La Grange.The motion to cut ties with Garber resulted in a 4-4 tie among members of city council. Carter cast a tie-breaking vote.

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jfoster@oldhamera.com