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Editorial: Newport City Council – as in most areas of life, it’s all about trust.

Newport City Hall

Newport City Hall

Looking back on the stormy tenure of former City Manager Jim Voetberg, one things stands out very clearly. A number of current and past city councilors didn’t trust him. When it comes to a city with a $54 Million annual budget, that’s not a good thing.

Criticism of Voetberg began shortly after he arrived at the city, taking fire for the way he handled the Dennis Reno situation at the airport. After Voetberg fired him, Reno filed suit and in the end won a $210,000 settlement from the city, of which the city paid $60,000 – their insurance company paid the rest. There was more criticism of Voetberg when he laid off Cheryl Ewing as a human resources employee. Ewing sued. The city’s insurance carrier paid the $180,000 settlement. There was further criticism of the way certain city employees retired and some were asked to sign an “I won’t sue the city” document and were paid “bonuses” for signing it.

Over time, momentum against Voetberg built as revealed in city-wide employee attitude surveys in which many workers stated repeatedly that they didn’t feel their work was appreciated and that they didn’t trust city administration. Surveys among city councilors about how they graded Voetberg’s performance were all over the map. However, one aspect that crept upward was a general feeling among councilors that something was wrong. The terms “transparency” and “lack of effective communication” between Voetberg and the council became more frequently used in evaluating his job performance.

In a real head scratcher, Voetberg testified during a recent municipal court proceeding that although the police chief, the city code enforcement officer and others found a resident’s very high hedge at 58th and Rhododendren a traffic safety hazard, and that the city had been trying for two years for the resident to trim it, suddenly declared he didn’t think it was a hazard. On another public nuisance issue, Voetberg was accused of dragging his feet on doing something about two long abandoned homes on NW Nye, homes that have become a gathering spot for vagrants, transients and occasional visits by children in the neighborhood. That situation is still hanging fire.

Voetberg also surprised the council recently when it was learned that, for the coming fiscal year, he had eliminated Newport’s support of the local bus transit loop through town. The move caught transit director Cynda Bruce off guard telling city councilors that Voetberg had just earlier told her that there would only be a slight reduction in support – nothing about zeroing it out. The city council asked Voetberg why he did it. He said “not enough tourists ride it.” Citing that Newport residents ride it for a variety of reasons, councilors promptly put the funds back into the program.

And then there was Voetberg’s recent disappearance for a few days for a trip that he described to staff only as “going away for a few days.” As it turned out, he was on a job search in Alaska. While he was gone it was learned he had failed to designate an acting city manager during his absence. Upon his return, he was asked by the city council whether he had appointed anyone to run the city in his absence. He said “I don’t remember if I did or not. Next time, I’ll make sure I do that.” Later he told councilors that while he didn’t get the job, he had returned to Newport more grateful than ever for his position with the city and that “The experience reinvigorated my commitment to Newport’s success.”

The city council’s general attitude toward Voetberg had been deteriorating over the past six months. At one point Voetberg said he heard of a behind the scenes plan to fire him, so he offered to resign. But to his surprise the council decided to keep him on the payroll while they “helped” him become a better city manager. A sub-committee of the council was tasked with that mission. But that endeavor was cut short with Voetberg’s subsequent announcement that he was quitting to take a general manager’s position in suburban Seattle with a small sewer and water district.

But just as Voetberg was in his last hours as city manager he distributed documents outlining airport employees complaints that three city councilors (all pilots) had created a hostile work environment at the airport – alleging, during traditional weekend barbecue’s at the airport, that city councilors Busby, Sawyer and Beemer had been complaining about Voetberg, about city budget problems and in one instance, predicted that the airport operations might be contracted out and that the two airport employees might be re-assigned to public works. Voetberg then distributed copies of the complaints to HR coordinator JJ Scofield, Clerk-Recorder Peggy Hawker, City Finance Director David Marshall and Mayor Sandra Roumagoux who promptly e-mailed copies to all city councilors, including to the three mentioned in the complaint. Early the next day Voetberg was traveling to his new job in Washington.

The upshot was that Mayor Roumagoux was promptly criticized by City Attorney Christy Monson for distributing what Monson contended was, under state law, a confidential document since the complaining “whistleblowers” had not signed a form specifically authorizing release of the documents into general circulation. Mayor Roumagoux defended her actions saying that when Voetberg issued her a copy of the complaint he mentioned nothing about confidentiality and so, as per city council protocols and procedures, passed on the information to the rest of the council. Even City Councilor David Allen strongly defended Mayor Roumagoux’s decision to distribute the information because “it’s part of official city council policies to share information with the council equally. We are one governmental body.”

Both News Lincoln County and the Newport News-Times received copies from “other sources” and ran stories about the contents. In the meantime District Attorney Rob Bovett ruled in a formal finding that the documents should have remained confidential, since the “whistleblowers” had not given their written permission that they be made public. Bovett, like Monson, also declared that any investigation into the allegations of creating a hostile work environment at the airport could be compromised if the documents were made public and that the employees could be subject to some sort of retaliation if the investigation found that the allegations were false. Or, we might add, if the charges were exaggerated for political purposes. In the complaint, the employees said they were told by Voetberg that the city council was preparing to fire him and that they too could be targeted because of their loyalty to him.

An investigator has been appointed by the city’s liability insurance carrier to interview everyone mentioned in the documents.

A number of factors contributed to this three year soap opera “As City Hall Turns.” Newport had a long time city manager with a firm hand on the wheel. But because time always marches on, Don Davis retired. What followed was a revolving door of a number of city managers who couldn’t help but alter the “social and power culture” of City Hall. Instability became the new norm. City Councilors over the years were thereby allowed to gradually blur the firewall between what’s under the prerogative of the city council and what is required of any city manager. A good city manager professionally defends his or her rightful domain of actually running the city as outlined in POLICIES by the city council. City councilors getting involved in the day to day operations of a city is strictly prohibited. But alas, when a city manager doesn’t demand the firewall be enforced, or is viewed by the city council as being “untrustworthy” or “not up to the task,” the council crosses that boundary and all kinds of mischief flows forth.

That’s not to say that over the years city councilors acted in bad faith or for purely selfish political gain. It seems obvious to many that they care very deeply about Newport, its citizens and for the future of the town.

But it comes down to this: When trust goes out the window, it is not time for a city council to try to manage by committee. Sadly, that’s been going on for the past three years despite considerable turnover on the council. It’s part of the council’s culture. It’s what is perceived as “normal.”

The cycle must be broken.

Fortunately there are definite signs that it is the will of the current city council to hire a new city manager who can help restore dignity to city hall and keep the community moving forward.

But again, it’s all about trust. When a council goes through continuous political convulsions year after year, it’s well past the time for action. At the first instance of systematic mistrust, the council is sailing in very dangerous waters, both financially and politically. It’s why positions like a city manager are “at will,” and therefore their employment contract contains a healthy severance package with both sides agreeing to not ‘bad mouth’ the other. People disagree on everything under the sun. But when it comes to an employment contract, there is the “at will” ripcord that can be pulled to give both sides the relief they both desperately desire and deserve, not to mention the frustrated public.

It’s no sin to fire someone. But it IS a sin to prolong the agony.

 

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