OTTUMWA — The City Council debated just how far their boundaries should extend in interviewing, hiring and firing city staff.
The council's behavior and involvement in the hiring of department heads was up for debate at Monday night's work session. While the council does directly interview and hire the city administrator, city attorney and city clerk, it doesn't currently have the ability to directly participate in the interviews of department heads or their staff. The question Monday was whether the council should be able to participate in the interviews of other important department heads, such as public works and finance directors.
Councilman Jeremy Weller said the council's hiring abilities should be limited to the three aforementioned positions.
"I don't think any of us really need to be sitting in on fire or police chief interviews, or any other department head interviews, for that matter," Weller said.
City Administrator Joe Helfenberger strongly suggested that if councilmen are to sit in on interviews as observers that they try as hard as possible to make it to the interviews of all applicants for the position.
But Councilman J.R. Richards said that could be unfair to councilmen with full-time jobs, unlike himself and Councilman Bob Meyers, who are both retired and have a better chance at being able to attend all interviews.
"The problem is all of us may have the intention to observe all the interviews, but if something comes up where we can't go, what's our frame of reference? Only the one or two we did see," Meyers said.
While Councilman Brian Morgan said the council should be able to sit in on interviews of department heads because of their importance, Meyers said Helfenberger is "paid the big dollars" to do just that.
Meyers also said councilmen should not sit in on interviews for staff below department heads.
"I can assure you, there are a couple department heads who don't want us sitting in, let alone participating," he said.
Helfenberger agreed and took it a step further: "They would probably all say that."
But city code states that any council member may sit in on a hiring process as an observer only.
In the end, Councilman Mitch Niner, Morgan and Richards all agreed that council members should be able to sit in on interviews of department heads as observers, but not as participants. Weller and Meyers said council members should only be able to sit in on interviews for the three positions they directly hire.
The council also discussed mutual respect in its communication with city staff.
"If you're asking a quick question on the status of a project ... you can ask pretty much any city employee that," Helfenberger said. "But if you have follow-up directions, those should be made through the city administrator or city attorney when appropriate. ...To direct that work be done, it has to go through me."
While all councilmen agreed this rule should stand as is, they worried that there is no way to enforce it.
"What can be done?" Weller asked. "You can bring it to our attention ... but where's the teeth in this to stop someone from violating it?"
Mayor Frank Flanders said while violating the rule is not criminal, the offense could be "tried in public opinion." City Attorney Joni Keith said the most administration could do would be to publicly chastise or censor the offending councilman.
"Public opinion is taking a look at what a joke we are," Meyers said, "because of one to two individuals at a time who have bordered on harassing, if not harassed, staff."
Finally, the council discussed exactly how many votes it should take to fire the city administrator. It had been suggested that the rule should be changed from a 3-2 vote to a 4-1 vote needed in order to fire the administrator.
"I was under the impression that this was going to address also the city clerk and city attorney, the people the council has control over," Weller said. "Why are we singling out the city administrator position and not all three? ... I think it's wrong we're talking about only Joe's job. It gives off the wrong impression."
Keith said the distinction lies in that the administrator has direct supervision over the attorney and clerk, "so there's a little bit of a layer of insulation between the council and those two positions."
"Over the past many years, there have been comments made that, 'Hey, city administrator, I've got three votes so you better work with me,'" Meyers said.
While Niner previously told the Courier that he has said this to Helfenberger, he said he would never think of actually firing him.
Morgan, Weller and Niner said the 3-2 rule should stand, as future councils can always change it if they want in order to fire or not fire the administrator.