Talks began in December regarding finding a new city manager

January 22, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

UPDATED — 5 p.m. Jan. 22, 2010

Talks regarding firing City Manager John Starbard and appointing former Community Development Director Rob Wyman as interim city manager began privately in December.

While councilmen-elect John Dulcich, Bill Erxleben and Rich Crispo said they had been in favor of making changes to the city’s management, Erxleben specifically sought out Wyman in December as a candidate for interim city manager.

Erxleben discussed the matter with Dulcich and Crispo, and such talks were legal because the councilmen-elect had not been sworn into office.

Individuals who have been elected to serve on the City Council, but have not yet been sworn into office are not legally held to restrictions as to whom they can speak with about city business, as determined by the State of Washington Court of Appeals case Wood v. Battle Ground School District.

At an additional City Council meeting Jan. 12, the council voted 6-1 to terminate Starbard’s contract without cause, effective immediately. In another 6-1 vote that night, the council appointed Wyman to take over as interim city manager.

However, the council did not consider other candidates for the position, nor was there discussion at the meeting regarding Wyman before a motion was made to appoint him as interim city manager.

Tim Ford, ombudsman for the Washington State Attorney General, said when a City Council takes action without much public discussion, it may give members of the public the impression that decisions were made in private, possibly violating the law.

“The perception is that there was a secret meeting by the council,” Ford said, adding that such perceptions may or may not be true.

Wyman said he spoke with Dulcich and Erxleben in 2009 about the city manager position.

Also, Erxleben and Councilman Steve Buri met together with Wyman in person in 2009, and Erxleben said he used the opportunity to inquire whether Wyman would be interested in taking the city manager position if it were to become vacant. However, Buri said at the time he wasn’t considering Wyman as a replacement for Starbard.

Wyman said he also met with Crispo in 2009, but Crispo said he was using the opportunity to learn more about Wyman.

However, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said holding discussions in this manner calls into question the ethics of the situation.

“One could certainly say that they violated the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act,” he said.

Nixon said although the Newcastle council members did not appear to violate state law, he said their behavior would have gotten them into trouble in states with more stringent open-government laws, like Florida.

In Florida, the law also treats members-elect the same as officeholders, and members cannot discuss business that could come before their jurisdiction, regardless of whether a quorum is present. Nixon said he felt members-elect should behave as though they are already members of the governing body, by moderating their nonmeeting discussions.

Councilwomen Lisa Jensen and Carol Simpson and Buri said they had also individually discussed Starbard with one or more of the councilmen-elect in December.

Buri said he and Simpson also casually discussed their feelings regarding Wyman.

According to the Open Public Meetings Act, a City Council quorum — a majority of the council — may not privately meet and discuss city business. A quorum in Newcastle would be four or more members. City Council members interviewed separately said they did not discuss the city manager situation as a quorum.

Councilman Sonny Putter represented the only dissenting opinion in both terminating Starbard’s contract and appointing Wyman.

After Erxleben made the motion at the Jan. 12 meeting to appoint Wyman as interim city manager, Putter said Wyman was unfit for the job. Putter also said it was at the meeting that he first heard Wyman was being considered to take over as interim city manager.

Putter cited Wyman’s lack of experience, because Wyman has never served as a city manager before. Putter also said Wyman had an illness issue, although he would not elaborate on what the issue was nor how it would affect Wyman’s ability to serve as interim city manager.

Wyman said he has no illness issues that would hinder his ability to act as interim city manger.

Putter also said Wyman is ethically compromised, because Wyman made a $500 contribution to Dulcich’s council campaign in the summer, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.

During his campaign, Dulcich received more than $12,000 in contributions to his campaign from 88 different individuals. The largest contribution he received from a donor was $1,000, while the second largest was $500. There were four $500 donors.

In an interview after the meeting, Putter referred to the International City Manager’s Association code of ethics, which states, “refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body,” and Putter acknowledged that Wyman was not a city manager at the time of his contributions.

“This is not a legal matter,” Putter said. “It’s a matter of ethics and perceptions.”

Putter also said that should have prompted the council to look for a different individual for the position.

“With so many other potential interim city managers out there, why would we choose one who is under a cloud?” Putter asked in an interview after the meeting.

Wyman said he had no plans of returning to the city when he made his contribution to Dulcich in August.

“There was absolutely no inkling of a thought that this could happen back then,” Wyman said regarding being appointed as the city’s interim city manager.

Dulcich said Wyman’s contribution was not influential, and Dulcich cited the diversity in the contributions he received.

Dulcich also said appointing Wyman quickly was necessary, because there is little room for error in the economic climate, and having a leader is important.

“You need someone at the helm,” Dulcich said. “I think it was prudent the way it was done. It was fiscally responsible.”

He said appointing Wyman was a better idea than appointing a current city staff member, because Wyman has more experience with the city than any current staff member.

“In my mind, although he had a break from the city, he is a senior staff member,” Dulcich said. “I have no doubt that we did the right thing.”

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15 Responses to “Talks began in December regarding finding a new city manager”

  1. Sue Stronk on January 22nd, 2010 1:56 pm

    Sounds like it is all out in the open now and nothing was done wrong. For those that want to beat up everone with a stick–it is over!! Let us all give it a rest and let the Council go forth. This is transparency at it’s best. Get on with the work at hand Council–you have my vote!!

  2. Ryan Ryals on January 22nd, 2010 5:30 pm

    I disagree; it’s not transparent at all. All we’ve learned from this article is that there was a non-public meeting to quickly replace the city manager without a real performance review, and that everyone except for Councilor Putter is defending their gray areas.

    “Transparency at its best” would include the six council members explaining why they fired him, and how that benefits Newcastle in the short term and long term. Any incoming candidate for the CM job is going to see how poorly this situation was managed, and reconsider whether Newcastle is a city worth working for. What the city will likely end up with is candidates who are either inexperienced, damaged goods, or not smart enough to investigate their future employer.

    Replacing a city manager isn’t like replacing a park concession stand worker. We aren’t told here if there are severance clauses in his contract, which may end up costing the city tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. Black Diamond is going through the same thing right now, and they’ll likely be forced to pay in the high five-figures for firing their CM.

    Hopefully Newcastle has some engaged citizens who are willing to pose tough questions to the council members about how this was handled. Maybe the outgoing CM was terrible at his job and a poor manager of employees, but we haven’t been told that, and the few people I know have only good things to say about him.

  3. Ryan Ryals on January 22nd, 2010 6:03 pm

    I just found the previous articles on this situation, and some of my questions have already been answered. The city is on the hook for over $60,000 severance, and the reason the CM was fired was “…fiscal discipline, neighborhood responsiveness and maintenance of the city’s streets, parks and trails.” Oh, and the Public Works Director and Parks Commissioner resigned; probably in protest.

    Really? Suddenly firing people because you want to move in “a new direction” is a cop-out reserved for NFL teams and their coaches. The legislative branch of government (the council) is responsible for fiscal discipline, not the executive branch. If the CM took parks money and bought ice cream with it, that would be fiscally undisciplined, but he doesn’t have that freedom.

    Legislators are also responsible for the “vision” of the city. If a project isn’t fitting with the community’s vision, it’s not funded. If citizens only want one-story buildings, it’s up to the council to zone it that way. It’s just that simple.

    I have a bad feeling that the replacement department heads will fall into the inexperienced and damaged-goods categories after potential candidates read about this mess. You might save 10-15% off the salary of the last officeholder, but you’ve also lost years of productivity including training time.

  4. Stuart Liddle on January 23rd, 2010 12:51 pm

    RE: Current council’s actions on CM firing & Interim CM hiring…

    Legal? Technically yes.

    Ethical? NO!

    @Sue: If this is “transparency at its best.” Using that logic all the council’s decisions should be made in private and then announced to the public AFTER the fact.

    Is this the kind of open & transparent city government you really want?

  5. Gary Adams on January 24th, 2010 5:42 pm

    Both Councilmembers Dulcich and Erxleben served on the Council previously so they are very aware of the requirements of the Open Meetings Act which explains why they so carefully did all this prior to being sworn in. This can’t be considered “transparent” in any sense. Having served on the Council for 6 years and as Mayor for two I’m pretty aware of how easy it is to “talk” about issues without having a quorum of the Council. That’s one of the reasons I’ve requested copies of any email exchanges that occured between the incoming councilmembers and the members that were already on the Council. In this story the councilmembers essentially admit that they were actively discussing this action in advance, without notice, with an eye on making a change (in other words, in a decision making mode). Again, this isn’t about their right to make a change. It’s about the process they’ve used, the obvious manipulation of the decisionmaking process, and how they are now backfilling the decision to try to make it look like it was a well thought out, transparent, process that we should all have confidence in. Let’s hope this isn’t how they plan on making decisions on the other major issues (like zoning changes, changing the community developed downtown business plan, etc…)

  6. Gary Adams on January 25th, 2010 10:27 am

    FYI…for anyone interested please check the Newcastle News article of Dec. 31 regarding the appointment of Karin Blakley. Councilmembers Jensen and Buri are both quoted commenting on the “very fast” appointment. Kinda funny they didn’t exhibit that same concern regarding the CM removal and appointment of his replacement.

  7. M.D. on January 25th, 2010 11:30 am

    It’s only this new council’s first month! Imagine what they can do in four more years! We are all screwed if they are doing back door deals already. We should be calling for their resignations!

    This is appalling. Many of us knew this was coming because last November NEWCASTLE VOTERS LET A SMALL BAND OF REBELS WITH EGOS THE SIZE OF TEXAS into office. You get what you vote in! What was this city thinking???

    This city is going to be in huge trouble. These people, the “six” of the seven council members who are connected at the hip and will vote the same on whatever Erxleben and Dulcich want, will continue to make sweeping changes that will damage this city. And in ways that cannot be undone later.

    The fact they ran on being “purely transparent” and would scream at council meetings that the former council wasn’t “open” enough for the public to share and provide input….and they go and pull this? Bringing in Dulcich’s top campaign contributor? Without ANY option for the public to discuss it or allow the public to weigh in? Sounds like we have Pelosi and Reed running our city. It may be “legal” but it doesn’t make it right.

    Now we see the what I feared would happen. The “back room” bullies are in office. It’s the Erxleben, Dulcich and Crispo show now. And Carol Simpson, Lisa Jensen and Buri will follow them like puppy dogs. Even to their own future political demise. Newcastle WILL wake up. And when they do, it’ll be time to vote better next time.

  8. Cris Wisner on January 26th, 2010 7:50 pm

    Really? A casual meeting in December after you have been elected but not sworn in. It my be within the law but it sure stinks. Was John Starbard that bad that everyone knew about it and these council-elect members knew something had to be done quickly? Unless they were at City Hall regularly how would they know? Four contributors of $500 and Wyman was one of them. Come on council, this is not even good sneeky work. I need to research my voting choices better next time.

    At least one of my candidates I voted for has shown come conviction, thanks Sonny.

  9. Julie Fox on January 27th, 2010 11:28 am

    I’m appauled at this unethical and unwarranted move by (most of) the city council. They get a vote of no confidence from me. Hang in there
    Sonny Putter, be our voice of reason until the next election.

  10. Gary Adams on January 28th, 2010 9:07 am

    For anyone interested, there are more comments/discussion regarding this issue in the comments section of the BREAKING NEWS – Council fires….store.

  11. Cathy on January 29th, 2010 6:32 pm

    Why are the comments being moderated in this forum? Is the newspaper picking and choosing which comments they want to add?

  12. Robin Bentley on February 1st, 2010 10:13 am

    I’m encouraged by this airing of views. The actions of the City Council completely violated the appearance of fairness doctrine. I agree with Ryan Ryals, above, and others who are appalled at the treatment of John Starbard, who by all accounts was a good City Manager. Newcastle, you owe him a huge apology.

  13. SalmonFisher on February 2nd, 2010 11:20 pm

    An airing of views is good. But polarization is not helpful. No one, not even supporters of Starbard, think “by all accounts he was a good city manager”. You could argue his talents outweighed his deficiencies. But anyone involved and aware recognized his shortcomings with people and relationsips with virtually every organization and entity inside and outside the city. It came up repeatedly and often in indefensible and sadly embarrassing ways for our city.

    I know some of you commenting know that too.

    There’s an opening on the parks Commission. And you even get to know about it before it’s filled. That’s new. Get involved for crying out loud.

  14. Cathy on February 4th, 2010 2:34 pm

    Be aware that I’ve left previous messages and the moderator on this site appears to be picking and choosing what they want on the site. Does that fact that I strongly disagree with the ethics of this council keep my remarks from getting on the comment section? I hope not, but if so, we can start commenting on other (larger) newspapers.

  15. Crosscheck on March 30th, 2010 2:38 pm

    So its okay for Starboard to hire a Planning Director with whom he has a personal relationship as a direct suborbinate? Lets talk about ethics.

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