A court has ruled the Zionsville mayor does not have the power to demote or discharge a department head without the town council’s approval and that the powers Mayor Emily Styron removed from Fire Chief James VanGorder exceeds her authority.

In March, Styron filed a suit for a judicial determination of powers after the council voted against her demoting Zionsville Fire Chief James Van-Gorder. Earlier, the same day, Styron removed all of VanGorder’s responsibilities and authority as chief. He turned around and successfully petitioned the court to be a party to the suit.

In his ruling Boone Superior Court Judge Matthew Kincaid found the 2014 Town of Zionsville Reorganization document did not give the mayor the power to “demote” a department head such as the fire chief or chief of police because that is “equivalent of discharging.” The summary judgement goes on to say that in order to exercise that authority, the mayor must have the approval of the town council.

In addition, Kincaid ruled that stripping VanGorder of his responsibilities as chief exceeds the mayor’s authority. To ensure that Styron would restore VanGorder’s responsibilities and duties as head of a municipal fire department, the court’s calendar would keep the July 1 court proceedings on the calendar.

“In 2014, the citizens of Zionsville overwhelmingly voted in support of the reorganization,” Council President Josh Garrett said in a prepared statement on behalf of the council. “That document delineated roles and responsibilities for all Zionsville elected officials. We are pleased the court has upheld those rules and continues to support the will of the citizens of Zionsville.”

Garrett goes on to say the issue was a matter of public safety from the council’s point of view.

VanGorder has been head of the department for more than 25 years.

“We appreciate the professionalism of the Zionsville Fire Department during this legal clarification of process,” Garrett added. “At no point did we doubt the abilities of the men and women of ZFD to continue to respond to emergencies and we are grateful for their dedication to our community.”

He said the council is committed to working with the chief, mayor and International Association of Firefighters Local 441 to keep the citizens safe.

Late Friday afternoon, Styron released this statement: “It’s a true honor to serve as an elected official in this town. With the uniqueness of our structure of government, the need for clarity on roles and responsibilities arose due to language in the reorganization document and powers which had been granted to the Mayor. Having the best leadership we can have at the Zionsville Fire Department matters to me, as Mayor and as a citizen. As Town executive, I took action on behalf of the best interest of the Fire Department. The court ruled that the Mayor does not have the authority to demote the Fire Chief without Town Council approval. I am committed to moving forward and continuing to work on behalf of the citizens of our town. There will be no further comment at this time.”
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