OTTUMWA — A statement released by the city Thursday morning says Mayor Tom Lazio was responsible for the decision to place City Administrator Andy Morris on paid administrative leave and that he “took the action as the Chief Executive Officer for the City.”
Later Thursday the city announced a special meeting for noon Friday that includes consideration of Lazio’s appointment as interim city administrator.
The initial statement came after news broke Wednesday that Morris was placed on leave after this week’s council meeting. Councilman Marc Roe said Wednesday he characterized the move as a council decision. Roe said the council had “been talking about it over the past few days.”
Roe’s statements raised questions about whether the state’s open meetings law had been violated. Discussions of city matters between three or more members of the council require formal notice of a meeting. The law allows debate over a decision to take place in closed session, but any vote on the issue must be made in open session.
Thursday morning’s announcement said Lazio “was following legal advice, as there was no formal action taken by the City Council regarding Mr. Morris’s employment with the city. No open meetings laws were violated as council members met individually with legal counsel to receive advice and to explore the Council’s options.”
That suggests the city used a technique often called a “walking quorum” or a “serial meeting.” In such cases elected officials meet sequentially to discuss an issue, avoiding the presence of a quorum at any one time but gathering responses from a majority. It’s legal but has been heavily criticized.
The Iowa Public Information Board said in its dismissal of a 2017 complaint against the Garnavillo city council that the practice of a walking quorum “has been criticized by the courts and is not considered ‘best practices’ by the IPIB.” While it ruled in favor of the city in that case, it warned that “such actions in the future could be seen as an attempt to circumvent Chapter 21,” a reference to the state’s open meetings law.
Friday’s meeting has five items on the agenda, the first of which is acceptance of Morris’ resignation “subject to the negotiation of a severance package.” It also hints that unspecified “personnel issues” date back nearly three months.
The severance will be negotiated by Gayla Harrison, an Ottumwa attorney, and Harrison will also “provide legal guidance to the Mayor and Council regarding personnel issues retroactive to [June 1].”
Council members are also being asked to appoint Councilman Matt Dalbey as mayor pro tem until a new city administrator is in place and Lazio returns to his duties as mayor.
Ottumwa has used professional search firms to find city administrators in the past, and that appears to be the plan this time as well. The council is being asked to authorize Lazio and City Attorney Joni Keith, who is also the city’s human resources director, to seek proposals from firms and recommend one for the council.
The council will immediately recess after the meeting for a closed session “for the purpose of discussing pending litigation.”