The retirement of Lisa Westfall as Branson City Clerk led to a contentious closed session of the Branson Board of Aldermen on Tuesday, Jan. 10. The meeting, which lasted over six hours, included a vote related to the retention of Cathy Stepp as city administrator.
The vote was 3 to 1 for her removal, but the vote failed because a supermajority of at least four aldermen are required for the removal of a city administrator. Aldermen Cody Fenton, Clay Cooper, and Chuck Rodriguez voted to remove Stepp, while Alderman Ralph LeBlanc voted no.
Alderman Rodriguez told Branson Tri-Lakes News his seconding of the motion and vote to remove Stepp were related to her hiring and what he sees as “damaging results.”
“Cody Fenton made the motion, and I second it,” Rodriguez said. “Speaking for myself, I have witnessed multiple terminations, the early retirement of key city staff, and a complete erosion of trust under the current city administrator, who seems beholden to Larry and his vendettas. As we all know, the entire hiring process for this administrator was forced through by the current mayor breaking the tie with three aldermen. Now we are seeing the damaging results of that decision. I will continue to listen to the concerns of city staff and do everything in my power to support them, and the best interests of the City of Branson!”
Both Fenton, who made the motion for Stepp’s removal, and Cooper declined comment to Branson Tri-Lakes News.
LeBlanc, whose no vote stopped Stepp’s removal, explained his defense of Stepp.
“I was the lone alderman that voted to not terminate City Administrator Stepp and I voted no for several reasons,” LeBlanc said. “The most important of all has to do with the feedback that myself and Alderman Denham directly received from organizational meetings and public town hall meetings that her and I have conducted in Ward III.
“The overall majority of our constituents are absolutely impressed with the professionalism, knowledge, and kind candor that Cathy Stepp communicates. Cathy from the very beginning of her starting the job as city administrator has empowered and encouraged city staff to swing for the fences in their departments. This has helped to garner an open professional relationship between all directors and I feel many are going the extra mile because of the support the city administrator’s office has demonstrated toward them. This is just one of the many actions that the Board of Alderman has taken to help to create a positive culture at city hall.”
LeBlanc said Stepp has only increased her value to the city in his eyes.
“I supported the hiring of Cathy Stepp as the new city administrator and she has only strengthened my resolve of her qualifications and confidence,” LeBlanc said. “Experience is going to make the largest difference in the success of Branson Missouri and City Administrator Cathy Stepp brings years and years of high level experience to this position. This is why I stand for the voice of my constituents, the knowledge, and the discernment I have that I continue to support City Administrator Cathy Stepp. The results speak for themselves.”
Denham left the meeting after 4 ½ hours due to illness and missed the actual vote. She told Branson Tri-Lakes News she would have voted no, because she knew of nothing that would merit Stepp’s removal.
“It was my understanding that the executive meeting was being held to discuss the letter of retirement presented by Lisa Westfall, City Clerk,” Denham said. “I was present at the meeting from 7 p.m. to 11:39 p.m. The city administrator and city attorney were asked to leave the meeting. I feel the discussion during the meeting veered away from its original intent.
“I fully support all city directors who have continually gone above and beyond what is required of them. They excel and work as an amazing team under the exemplary leadership of Cathy Stepp, city administrator. I have heard nothing but accolades for Stepp, from both city staff and the community. Positive comments are continually made regarding the direction Branson is moving in.”
Mayor Larry Milton said he believes the vote was more symbolic than an a real attempt to remove Stepp.
“It was a very long executive session where Cathy and [acting City Attorney Jim] Meadows were asked to leave the meeting,” Milton said. “I believe the vote was more symbolic showing support for Lisa, versus a comment on Cathy’s leadership. I am confident after that meeting, cooler heads will prevail, and this board will remain united in accomplishing all the positive things this board wants to do moving forward.
“I continuously hear from directors and city employees of their trust and confidence in Cathy’s leadership to help guide us in the direction Branson wants to go.”
Stepp told the Branson Tri-Lakes News she is focusing on her role as city administrator and not on politics.
“It should come as no surprise that political maneuvering takes place during election season,” Stepp said. “I have championed the board’s direction by leading the revitalization of servant government at city hall in a positive direction. As we embark on this new year with a robust budget and bold priorities for 2023, I will continue to lead our staff with enthusiasm, integrity, and transparency to move our city forward and serve our community. I’m thankful for the many people inside and outside city government for their encouragement and support.”
The next meeting of the Board of Aldermen is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 24, with a study session at 4:30 p.m. and a regular meeting at 6 p.m. Public comment can be offered to the aldermen during a segment of the regular meeting.