By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 06. 2007 5:00AM PST
PRINEVILLE – More than two weeks after Prineville city officials eliminated the public works director’s job, residents, City Council members and public employees are still mired in debate over the decision.
Hundreds of residents have signed petitions calling for Mayor Mike Wendel to resign. Others are criticizing Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham, who originally suggested removing Public Works Director Jim Mole.
The controversy has also led the City Council to examine its role in overseeing City Manager Robb Corbett, who has the power to hire and fire city employees without council approval, according to the city charter. Councilors say they want to examine the decisions to release Mole as well as hire Gillham, who has overseen similar efforts to restructure city administrations as manager of other Oregon towns.
“I understand what the public wants, and they want an explanation of what happened, and the city owes them a better explanation of what occurred, and they’ll get that at the council meeting (on Feb. 13),” Corbett said.
Gillham began working in Prineville in September. Five months later, he asked Mole, a nearly four-year city employee, to leave. Both men said that Gillham told Mole of the decision on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 18. Mole said he was told to be out of his office by Friday afternoon; Gillham said he does not remember the particulars of the meeting.
Corbett said the decision involving Mole stems from a general restructuring of city government that will put the assistant city manager in charge of the Planning and Public Works departments. Corbett said that Gillham brought the idea of eliminating Mole’s job to him but added that the decision was ultimately his.
Gillham is leaving in the next few days for six weeks of training as a member of the Oregon National Guard. Corbett said that hiring Gillham, who makes about $87,000 a year, as assistant city manager was a key element in reorganizing city departments and bringing professional staff to Prineville.
At the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, which attracted more than 100 people, all of the City Council members other than Wendel said they were not aware in advance of the decision to restructure the public works department.
“I’ve had a lot of concern of how this has unfolded,” City Councilor Gordon Gillespie said after the meeting. “I wish we’d had more information ahead of time; I wish the city’s plans on restructuring of the staff had been discussed more beforehand with both the City Council and the staff.”
A restructuring move
Corbett said that the decision to restructure city government was based on the “explosive growth” that officials are anticipating for Prineville in the next few years.
“What the city lacked was the professional capabilities of coordinating the planning effort with the development needs of the community,” Corbett said. “It’s happening at such a massive scale that it was important for me to have someone of Jerry (Gillham)’s professional capabilities.”
Corbett added, “I’m not going to compare him to Jim (Mole),” and he described the decision to eliminate Mole’s position as “purely a restructuring decision.” He said he did not want to discuss the specifics of Mole’s job performance.
Regarding the decision with Mole, Gillham said, “I work for the city manager and was doing my job.”
Mole said that some of the major projects he worked on as public works director included replacing the Main Street and Harwood Street bridges and installing the 10th Street sewer line. He was also working on the Crooked River Bridge project, which is still under construction. The projects cost between $1.5 million and $3.7 million each, and the three that have been completed all came in on budget, he said.
Mole said he is still “in shock” over the turn of events. He served as public works director for about three years, and his ending salary was about $67,000 a year.
“I don’t know why I was let go – I was given no warning or anything,” he said.
Many residents attending the last City Council meeting said they thought Mole did an excellent job.
“We had the best city crew here in Central Oregon,” said Tim Carter, who described himself as a local contractor. “We are concerned why someone who comes here, gets things done, why they would be let go.”
Mole said he did not know of any personal conflicts with Gillham. Samantha Waltjen, the administrative assistant for the Public Works Department whose position was eliminated at the same time as Mole’s, said she and Mole had taken a different stance than Gillham over issues such as putting certain projects out to bid and having the City Council approve some expenditures.
Gillham said he did not recall a dispute over those issues.
Both Mole and Waltjen were offered severance packages of three months’ salary, they and Corbett said. Waltjen was also given the option of taking a to-be-created administrative position in City Hall, but she took the severance package.
“Everyone that I’ve talked to has told me that public works in the city has gotten just better and better over the last four years,” said Waltjen, who worked for the city for about six months.
Questions of legality
According to Prineville’s city charter, the city manager is responsible for the administrative branch of the city. The City Council hires and fires the city manager, but the city manager makes hiring and firing decisions for all other employees or delegates those decisions to a subordinate.
Most of the people who work for the city are “at will” employees, meaning they can be terminated at any time and for any reason, City Attorney Carl Dutli said. The city does not currently have any ordinances or sections of the city charter that would place restrictions on the hiring or firing of an employee like Mole, a department head who did not have an individual contract and was not a member of a union with a collective bargaining agreement.
Mayor Mike Wendel said last week he is “looking forward to communicating with (Corbett) and strengthening our ties and our communication.” He added that he wants the City Council to look more closely at its personnel rules and ordinances.
“I am planning on making some suggestions to the City Council on modifications of some of our policies to alleviate some of the issues that we’ve had in the past,” Wendel said.
Some of the people in attendance at the council meeting also raised questions about the way Gillham was hired. Corbett said last week that he did not advertise for the position.
Although a salary for an assistant city manager was not brought before the City Council in the last budget cycle, Corbett said that Gillham’s pay comes out of the city manager’s budget. Specifically, the money comes from a salary that was set aside for a planning director, a position that was unfilled after Mike Cerbone left the job in February 2005, and pay for consultants in the Planning or Public Works departments.
Corbett said that he had known Gillham professionally for several years and would sometimes call him for advice on city management decisions. Gillham has served as city manager in Madras, Baker City, Scappoose and Nyssa.
“I wanted to go out and find somebody that had the appropriate professional, managerial and organizational skills to put together a team to respond to growth,” Corbett said. “I called Jerry hoping that he might know somebody that had those skills, and as I described those to him, he indicated to me that he was interested in coming and doing that work.”
Dutli said he has consulted another labor attorney who sometimes works as a consultant for the city, and he believes that Gillham was hired legally.
Harry McFarland, a local resident who attended the Jan. 23 council meeting, described the roles Corbett and Gillham played in the restructuring and their lack of communication with the City Council as “cronyism.”
“At that meeting that night it came out that the council didn’t have any control over what the city manager was doing, and I think that’s 100 percent wrong,” said McFarland, who added that he knows Mole socially.
Several businesses in Prineville are also collecting signatures on a petition asking Wendel to resign. The petition calls Wendel’s failure to inform the other City Council members about the public works restructuring “unconscionable.”
Don Porfily, manager of Ochoco Feed Co., said the petition in his store already has more than 250 signatures. The organizers are planning to present the petition to the City Council on Feb. 13.
In response, Wendel said he is “upset,” but added that he “would hope that everybody would understand both sides of the story before they sign a petition.”
Even if the procedure for hiring Gillham was strictly legal, City Councilor Betty Roppe said she thinks the council should have had more communication with Corbett during the process.
“It is his job to do the hiring, and I don’t want to micromanage his position,” Roppe said. “I just would have liked to have had more information.”
Gillham has held several city manager jobs in the past decade. He also served a tour of duty in Iraq between September 2004 and December 2005 as a National Guardsman and served as city manager in Nyssa from 1990 to 1991.
He left Baker City, where he had worked since 2003, in September to become assistant city manager in Prineville. He was in Scappoose between 1999 and 2003, and was Madras’ city manager from 1997 to 1999.
Several of the mayors and council members he worked with in the past described him as an energetic and capable administrator.
“He had a really good relationship for most of the time at the city,” said Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge, who was on the Scappoose City Council at the time. “The city really didn’t have a lot of vision or goals, but he was able to bring that together, put it into a business plan and get the city going in the right direction.”
But Burge said that Gillham’s efforts to restructure the city government in Scappoose created some resentment among employees who were let go at the time. The former police chief has sued the city over her termination while Gillham was city manager, Burge said.
Jeff Petry, the mayor of Baker City, described Gillham as “a good city manager” but said he upset some people with decisions he made there.
“Every city manager is going to have a bullet on his back, a nice big target,” he said.
Dick Fleming, a former public works director in Baker City, said that four months after Gillham became city manager there, he asked for Fleming’s resignation and told him he should be out of his office by that afternoon, early in April 2004.
“He asks for my resignation, which was his legal right, without ever any explanation of why he was asking for it, what problems he had or anything,” Fleming said. “It’s entirely possible that he could just tell that I didn’t think much of his management style.”
Fleming said he had worked for the city for almost four years when Gillham asked him to resign. After Gillham left, Fleming applied for the city manager job but did not receive it. He is still city engineer, a job he said takes a few hours a month, and is starting a learning center.
Gillham said he cannot comment on specific personnel issues.
He is also a defendant in a lawsuit stemming from his time in Baker City over a dispute involving a historic theater. He said he was not directly involved in the situation. The suit states that Gillham’s arrival as city manager led to a dispute over renovations to the theater, and that Gillham ordered Baker City’s building official to post signs on the theater declaring it unsafe for occupancy.
Corbett said that since Gillham arrived in Prineville, Mole’s job responsibilities steadily diminished to the point that “the job was reduced to more of a manager’s role than a director’s role.”
The city did not offer Mole the option of moving into the job that is now described as “lead supervisor” for the Public Works Department.
“We would never expect him to take that because of his skills and his background,” Corbett said. “He’s going to go out and be able to find a competitive or a better-paying job than he has with the city.”
Now, Corbett said, he is assessing whether the roughly 10 remaining employees in the Public Works Department will be able to work with Gillham in the future. While Gillham is in National Guard training in South Carolina, a city engineer, Mike Wilson, will act as a liaison between the Public Works Department and the city manager.
Several city employees in public works and other departments said they do not want to comment on the situation right now.
Corbett said that many of the people working in City Hall are still upset about the decision to eliminate Mole’s position. He added that the change “came as a shock” for many employees.
“I just trust where people are at the point that they’re getting to walk out that they would come and talk to me, and I think that I would expect there to be people that are upset and I understand that,” he said.
Gillham said that he had not expected the public reaction that the restructuring decision has engendered.
“As city manager you have to make tough decisions,” he said. “There’s always going to be some people who either personalize or may not like your decision, and when you think you’re doing what’s best for the city that’s what’s going to happen.”
Mole said that he is still assessing his next steps, but he would be happy to return to his old job.
“I would be more than glad to take my job back because that’s only in the best interest of the community,” he said. “I like my job; I like being involved with the public works and just, you know, interfacing with the public and everything like that.”