The city’s handling of former city administrator Andy Morris should concern residents. Friday’s meeting raised additional red flags.
The city’s code establishes Ottumwa as a “mayor-council form of government.” In that form, the mayor’s role is largely ceremonial. It is the council that acts and makes decisions. It is also the body that hires a city administrator.
That’s critical. Iowa Code says that people “appointed to city office may be removed by the officer or body making the appointment, but every such removal shall be by written order.” Since it is the council that appoints the city administrator, only the council has legal authority to remove the administrator.
What happened Tuesday night clearly did not conform to that requirement. The city council had taken no action with regard to Morris. The mayor presented him with a letter placing him on administrative leave. The city’s statement on the matter was issued Thursday, about 36 hours after that action.
Here’s the key portion of that statement: “Mayor Lazio said he 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.”
The city’s own statement explicitly said Morris’ removal was not done by the body that appointed him to his position, an apparent violation of state code. But it then attempts to reverse course, saying the council had explored its options through individual meetings with an attorney — meetings designed specifically to avoid triggering the state’s open meetings notification requirements.
The latter is legal under Iowa law, but has been criticized by both the courts and the Iowa Public Information Board. Such efforts to avoid the law are rightly viewed as a contemptuous slap at the public’s right to know what is happening in their government.
The appointment of Lazio as interim city administrator raises concerns as well, especially since City Attorney Joni Keith said he proposed himself for the position. The purpose of having a professional city administrator is at least in part to insulate city departments from political concerns. It introduces a buffer between those who must seek public approval in order to guide the city and those who do the day-to-day work of actually running it.
Insulation between city staff and political candidates is essential. Appointing the mayor destroys it, and it does so regardless of whether Lazio steps away from his office for the duration. The implicit plan to resume mayoral duties maintains Lazio’s status as a political figure, subject to the same concerns about public opinion as any officeholder.
Even the best elected representatives find their better judgement challenged at times by political expediency. If an official plans to retain office, that official must keep voters happy. That means occasionally having to decide between what is right and what is best politically. It is dangerous to put someone in a position where they may so easily conflate what is best for themselves and what is best for the community.
The way this situation was handled does the city no favors. If the city council wanted Morris gone, it could have taken action to remove him, rather than this nonsense. And that would not have necessarily done either side’s reputation harm. City administrators come and go; that’s the nature of the job.
But removal of an administrator in this manner? Followed by a panicky statement denying lawbreaking? That’s a black eye, one that didn’t have to happen, and one that may well give good candidates pause when deciding whether to apply to become Ottumwa’s next city administrator.