Residents upset with Prineville job elimination

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: January 25. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – City officials eliminated the job of Prineville’s public works director last week in a move the city is describing as “restructuring.”

More than 100 residents crowded into the City Council chambers at the council’s regular meeting Tuesday and many protested the loss of Jim Mole, who led the public works department for four years. Those in attendance, many of whom were contractors who had worked with Mole, praised his work in the department and demanded answers about what several called a firing decision.

“He did a hell of a good job for the city of Prineville,” Jim Puckett told the council. “Well, Mr. Mayor, child, I’ve been here for 65 years, you’ve been here for just a few years and I guarantee you I want to know (why he was released from his job).”

Mole said Wednesday he has been advised by his attorney not to talk to the media at this time.

Mayor Mike Wendel told the audience at the meeting that he did not think it was appropriate to discuss a particular employee during a public meeting. Wendel said after the meeting that he does not want to talk about the issue.

City Manager Robb Corbett said he was uncomfortable discussing the matter in public.

“The city is not disputing the job that was done – this was purely an operational matter,” Corbett told the crowd at the council meeting.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Corbett said that the population boom in Prineville in the last three years has led to a reorganization of the public works and planning departments in the city.

“With the pressures that we’ve faced as a community in the past three years related to growth, it became evident to me that there was a need for someone of (Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham)’s expertise to be able to step into a position over planning and public works,” Corbett said. But he added that the move was “purely a restructuring decision.”

Corbett said that as Gillham has taken on more public works responsibilities since he was hired about six months ago, the role of the public works director has diminished to more like a foreman position.

“We find ourselves in the situation where we don’t need a director any more, and so now you have a director who’s getting paid a director’s salary and you don’t need that position there any more,” he said.

The city offered Mole a severance package of three months’ salary, Corbett said. He did not know offhand how much Mole made.

Gillham, who did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday, will now oversee the public works and planning departments and will also keep the title of assistant city manager.

Samantha Waltjen, the administrative assistant for the public works department whose position was also eliminated last week, said she was informed that she no longer had a job Friday morning. The reason she was given, she said, was that the department is being restructured.

Waltjen, who had worked for the city for about six months, said Gillham told her to go home immediately and gave her the option of taking a to-be-created position in the planning department or a severance package of three months pay. She said she took the severance package.

At the City Council meeting, several speakers questioned Corbett and Gillham’s role in the decision, suggesting that they had improperly acted without the City Council’s approval. Larry Smith, a local resident, asked the council how many members were aware of the firing decision beforehand, and all except Wendel indicated that they hadn’t been notified.

One speaker described the decision as “blatant cronyism,” and another suggested a recall of the City Council members.

Councilor Steve Uffelman said Wednesday that the city needs to do a better job of informing residents about its overall plan for restructuring city government, but he added that personnel decisions are left up to the city manager.

“The operation of the city is the responsibility of the city manager, he hires, he fires, he does some restructuring,” Uffelman said. “Yes, we need to be in the loop and we need to oversee that and make sure it all makes sense. That’s why I asked Robb (Corbett) for a clearly defined plan of where he is taking this.”

Uffelman described the decision to let Mole go as “not a personal thing at all – this is a change in an operation that has needed to come.”

Gary Ervin, another local resident, said after the meeting that he does not think the concerns about the decision are going to subside quickly.

“They’re trying to whitewash it, they’re trying to just shove it aside and hope it goes away – they don’t want to answer any questions, but it won’t go away,” Ervin said. “They have destroyed the best working public works department in Central Oregon, likely for a long while.”

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