LYNWOOD — Paychecks to 120 municipal employees were taken hostage in a political squabble last week when the City Council quarreled over a single $159 expense and ended up refusing to approve any of the city's $423,000 biweekly bills.
The conflict left city administrators scrambling to make sure they could legally pay employees nevertheless. And it continued to spark bitter exchanges between Mayor Robert Henning and Councilman E.L. Morris.
"It's the craziest thing I ever heard of. They're making this into a racial issue," said the mayor, who is black.
"That is completely and totally untrue," said Morris, who is white. "When he gets caught between a rock and a hard spot this is what he falls back on, the racial issue. The only (racial) strife we have in this community is created by the mayor."
Employees Promised Checks
City Atty. E. Kurt Yeager said that municipal employees will receive their normal two-week checks Wednesday as usual because state law doesn't require the council to approve "critical" bills before they are paid. However, several city vendors will have to wait for their money until the council works out what Yeager described as "obviously a political problem."
The dispute began last Tuesday when the council was asked to routinely approve the biweekly "warrant list" of pending bills, which included amounts for employee pay.
Morris objected to a $159 charge from a local photographer who had billed city taxpayers after taking three pictures at the request of Henning. The mayor said the photographs helped promote the city, and therefore constituted an acceptable expense. One of the photos showed Henning and Councilwoman Evelyn Wells standing with Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn at a birthday party given in Hahn's honor last month at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Also in the picture, which eventually appeared in a local newspaper, was Alfreddie Johnson Jr., a candidate in the Nov. 4 special City Council election to replace deceased Councilman Louis A. Thompson.
Henning has endorsed Johnson.
Morris has endorsed Louis Heine, one of seven other candidates.
Morris said he regarded the photograph of Johnson as "strictly political. . . . It is not the city's function to pay for an individual's public relations out of city funds."
Charge Remains on List
So the councilman asked that the $159 charge be removed from the warrant list. The mayor then said he wouldn't vote to approve the list unless the $159 charge was included.
Neither side budged. Councilman John Byork, who is white, agreed with Morris. Councilwoman Wells, who is black, agreed with Henning. And the meeting was adjourned with the stalemate unresolved.
After the meeting, Henning contended that the objections of Morris and Byork really stem from the fact that "the photographer was black and the people in the picture were black. It's a racial issue."
He said both of the white councilmen--as well as their favored candidate--could have been included in the Hahn photo had they chosen to attend the party.
Morris said he didn't attend because there was a council meeting that night. When only he and Byork showed up, however, the session lacked a quorum.
As for the racial charge, Morris said: "Our population (in Lynwood) is pushing about 54,000 . . . not over 12% or 14% of that 54,000 is Caucasian. How can we have a racial situation?"
The mayor's conduct at the meeting, said Morris, "smacks kind of like blackmail. 'Either you pay the warrant I'm concerned with or all the employees don't get paid.' I think it's certainly not good government."
The council's next scheduled meeting is Oct. 7, when it is expected to take up the warrant issue again. But Henning said he may ask a judge to intervene.
"Myself and Evelyn are thinking very deeply of getting an attorney and suing," the mayor said.