The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

April 6, 2013

Eliminating ‘walking on eggshells’

Proposed rule change could require four votes to give city administrator the boot

OTTUMWA — It takes three council members to kick out the city administrator, but that could soon be amped up to four.

Councilman Bob Meyers said he has pushed for the ordinance regarding employment of the city administrator to be changed, which will be discussed at Monday night’s work session.

Currently, City Administrator Joe Helfenberger may be removed from his position by a 3-2 vote from the full council. The proposed change would amend the ordinance to require a 4-1 vote of the full council to remove him.

“It’s my understanding that the city administrator has been told many times, ‘Hey, I’ve got three votes to have you dismissed,’” Meyers said.

While Helfenberger said the proposal “has nothing to do with the present,” Councilman Mitch Niner said it’s true.

“I’ve said it to Joe ... but it was to the tune of, ‘I’m tired of waiting for information,’” Niner said. “As a council member, it’s extremely frustrating to me to try to get answers for something and you continually get blown off. At some point you got to put your foot down and say something that’s going to get you the answers.”

Niner said that while he has made this comment to Helfenberger, he would never “even dream of getting rid of Joe.

“Even though we’ve had our bad discussions, I have absolutely no intention of ever voting to get rid of Joe,” he said. “He’s doing the best job he can with what he’s got to work with.”

Councilman J.R. Richards agreed with Niner.

“Joe’s done a good job,” Richards said. “He’s got a hell of a council to put up with because we’re all individual thinkers and we all have our own ideas on what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Richards is concerned that if a group were to run with a specific agenda or special interest, they could get three people on the council who could then vote out the city administrator.

Councilman Jeremy Weller said he’s not sold on either version of the ordinance but said he’ll likely lean toward the proposed 4-1 vote.

“Going back to the last couple of years with transit ... that’s where some of this stuff originated from, the threatening, the harassing,” Weller said. “Stuff has been thrown out by other councilmen threatening people’s jobs, which shouldn’t be done. I don’t want a city administrator to feel like he’s always walking on eggshells because he’s worried about losing his job.”

But Helfenberger said he has a good working relationship with the councilmen.

“Some council members were trying to plan for the future,” he said. “I never really worry about that. I just try to do the best I can and follow what I think is the best route to take for the city.”

The council will also debate how involved it should be in the interview process of certain department head positions.

The proposed “council rules of order” stems from some councilmen requesting that the council directly interview for certain positions, including public works director, city engineer, health director, parks and recreation director and finance director.

Currently, council members may sit in on and observe interviews for department head positions, but they may not participate in the interview. The council is responsible for the hiring and firing of three positions: city administrator, city attorney and city clerk.

“I think the council rules will help give people clear guidance on what is to be expected,” Helfenberger said.

Meyers said the council should not be directly involved in interviewing candidates for the aforementioned positions.

“I would like for that to be done by the city administrator and staff as they would see fit,” Meyers said. “We hire good staff. Why don’t we let them do their job?”

The issue has been a long time coming, Meyers said.

“When you think about an election of a year and three months ago, it was pretty obvious that we weren’t functioning well as a team,” he said. “We’ve had several incidents since then ... where I didn’t feel like due process was followed because individual council people felt like they had the power to push or control things their way, as opposed to it being a consensus.”

As far as being directly involved, Niner said some positions are more important than others.

“But I think we should be able to weigh in on any department head’s position,” Niner said. “If we feel like we want to get involved in a certain department head hiring, I think we should do that.”

Weller, on the other hand, said the council should keep its distance from some department head hirings.

“This is something that went all the way back to a year or so ago,” Weller said. “When Pam [Ward] and Ottumwa Transit were having issues, we wanted to implement some council rules, but we hadn’t done it yet. Ottumwa Transit hiring a new director brought it back to the front burner again.”

Councilman Brian Morgan could not be reached for comment as of press time Friday.

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