Council withdraws bid for say on hiring and firing

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | 11:23 p.m. CST; updated 5:46 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 20, 2010

*CORRECTION: The City Council voted 5-0 to withdraw the proposed amendment. Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe voted with the other council members present. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the vote.

COLUMBIA — City Manager Bill Watkins sat quietly Tuesday night as the Columbia City Council debated whether he had too much power.

The council weighed — and eventually dropped — a proposal to add a city charter amendment to the April 6 ballot that would require council input when city department heads are hired and fired. Currently, only the city manager can hire or fire department heads and council input is not required.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala introduced the amendment at the council meeting on Jan. 4. Skala has said he would like council members' opinions on these decisions to be taken into consideration to ensure more direct voter representation.

But after hearing input from a few people at Tuesday's meeting, Skala moved to withdraw the amendment. He said he had only intended to spark discussion, not bring the issue to a vote.

"We haven't had a discussion," Skala said. "The only discussion we've had was this last 10 minutes."

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said he didn't think the amendment was appropriate, regardless. "This will have the council mucking around where we don't need to be," he said.

Wade said city manager autonomy was appropriate within Columbia's form of government, in which the city manager handles most of the city's administrative duties. Wade said that if the council was serious about addressing the issue, it needed to ask whether Columbia should change its form of governance altogether.

"This is a different question than making one change," Wade said.

Watkins, who sits at the center of the council during meetings, didn't weigh in during the debate. But before Tuesday's meeting, he said he opposed council involvement in department head personnel matters, particularly when it comes to terminating positions.

"The firing is of particular concern to me," Watkins said. "What about a forced resignation? Is that a firing? Does that mean I have to make my case public? I think it makes a case a little touchy and difficult."

Second Ward Councilman Jason Thornhill expressed similar concerns Tuesday afternoon. He said he didn't feel he had enough information to evaluate the performance of department heads.

Thornhill pointed to the resignation of then-Water and Light Director Kraig Kahler as an instance when the city manager needed autonomy to act.

"As a councilperson, I think I saw Kahler three or four times," he said.

Kahler was charged late last year with the murder of his wife, two daughters and his wife's grandmother a few months after Watkins asked Kahler to resign. At the time, Watkins cited Kahler's "difficult family issues."

In the end, the proposed amendment was withdrawn after City Attorney Fred Boeckmann pointed out that Tuesday's meeting was the last in which an item could be added to the April ballot.

Skala said he would like to see further discussion of the issue in the presence of a full council. Mayor Darwin Hindman and Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser were absent.

The proposed amendment was withdrawn by a vote of 5-0.*

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Ray Shapiro January 20, 2010 | 12:07 a.m.

("Welcome to the Strong Mayor-Council Institute. Our mission is to serve as a resource for communities engaged in a civic debate over their governing structure. The Institute conducts research and consultation on the Mayor-Council form of government, trends in government structural reform, and serves as a repository of information on this topic.")

(Report Comment)
ann Peters January 20, 2010 | 8:13 a.m.

It is unfortunate the Missourian did not point out in this article that the City Visioning report calls for more over site by Council of the City Manager. Skala did not come up with this idea by himself. People who have lived in Columbia for most of there lives know how unbalanced the power of the City Mangers Office is. Back room deals have been the norm for years and the tax payers of Columbia foot the bill,for deals for a few. What progress has been made on the implementation of the Visioning report?

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin January 20, 2010 | 9:11 a.m.

What this article fails to mention is that city attorney Fred Boeckmann APOLOGIZED for prematurely placing the advise and consent ordinance on the council's agenda for an April vote.

"It's the first time in 23 years I've done anything TOO soon," he said, in a faux jest. "I apologize if I caused any confusion."

But Mr. Boeckmann knew exactly what he was doing.

Skala never intended this bill to go up for the April election. WATCH the video at the last meeting in December where he introduces it (link below). There's a huge hush, as council members initially appear petrified at this potential challenge to the King's authority, and then Skala reassures everyone -- numerous times -- that he only wants a DRAFT ordinance drawn for DEBATE and DISCUSSION.

At no time does Skala direct Boeckmann to write this Charter Change ordinance for placement on the April ballot, where 5 other Charter Changes are already headed. And at no time subsequent to that meeting did Skala or any council member direct such a thing.

"It took me completely by surprise," Skala told me. "But we don't make the agenda. The city manager does."

And therein lies a big part of the problem.

It's important back stories like this that local reporters often miss, and in so doing, fail to do justice to the proceedings.

Skala introduces advise and consent bill
Dec. 21, 2009
Approximately 2:36 into the video

(Last night's vote tally is also inaccurate. There were only five council members present, so the vote to withdraw couldn't have been 5-1).

(Report Comment)
Larry Bossaller January 20, 2010 | 9:57 a.m.

I am not surprised by some of the comments made by some of the City Council comments. For example, Wade said the Council doesn't need to be "mucking" around. Wade, that'a your job. Thornhill said " I don't know enough about Department heads to get involved" Thornhill, that's your job to find out. WE need some Council members with "management background" on the Council. WE NEED CHANGE!!

(Report Comment)
Dean Andersen January 20, 2010 | 11:47 a.m.

As I see it, we elect our council to help insure that our city governance is fair and ethical. When backroom deals are part of the accepted protocal for decision-making, it's time to have public discussions about open transparent governance, and how to maintain it. Thank you Karl for initiating such discussions... I hope in the future the Missourian will do a better job of covering the issues as they were presented.

(Report Comment)
Dan Goldstein January 20, 2010 | 1:47 p.m.

First I want to thank the City Council for starting to debate this issue of increased oversight over top level staff.

As was pointed out above, the concern about a need for increased oversight, and possible solutions are part of the citizens visioning report.

I also want to point out a misunderstanding on the CIty Managers part of the current MO sunshine laws. The City Manager is quoted as saying:

"The firing is of particular concern to me," Watkins said. "What about a forced resignation? Is that a firing? Does that mean I have to make my case public? I think it makes a case a little touchy and difficult."

While I always advocate open meetings, the sunshine laws allow closed meetings to deal with personal matters. This is why the City Managers review by the City Council is held in a closed meeting, as is the review of the city clerk.

The implication seems to be that Mr. Kahler would still be working for the city if an advise and consent ordinance had been passed. This is not true. If anything Mr. Kahler might have been fired earlier for his bad performance, horrible interactions with citizens and council and the fact that he beat his wife!

More importantly Mr. Dasho, our previous director of Water and Light, who did not beat his wife, did support renewable energy portfolio standards, who did work hard to get developers to pay for infrastructure and burying power lines and who seems to have had the full support of the community until Mr. Watkins decided he was not playing ball on pushing development, might still be working for the City of columbia.

The loss of Mr. Dasho and his subsequent replacement with a homicidal Water and Light director who had very questionable management skills is one of the reasons we as a community need to either replace our City manager, or discuss the more cautious step proposed by Councilman Skala, of implementing an advise and consent process, as called for by the citizens in the visioning process.

Dan Goldstein

(Report Comment)
Larry Bossaller January 20, 2010 | 5:09 p.m.

Dan Goldstein........I think we need you on the City Council...seriously......You could make a difference in a positive way.

(Report Comment)
Chris Canipe January 20, 2010 | 5:56 p.m.

As a couple of you have pointed out, the visioning committee's final report did make recommendations for greater council participation in personnel decisions for some city positions. I didn't get to it in the story I wrote but I've written a blog post about it on the Watchword site.

The Watchword, by the way, is a less formal forum for us city government reporters to write about things that maybe don't necessarily make it into the Missourian. Lots of good stuff on there.

I should also note that we are aware that the subhead to this story as it ran in print, "The City Council decided that the power of the city manager was not there's to change" was misleading. We will be running a correction.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 20, 2010 | 6:37 p.m.

Larry says "WE need some Council members with "management background" on the Council. WE NEED CHANGE!!"

Actually Jason is in management as he is a partner in a business. I think he was wise in his assessment.

Do YOU Larry actually think that you could know everything about each department head? No you can't. Do you even know what qualifications there are to be a Engineer? How would the council who all come from different backgrounds even begin to weigh in the the technical aspects of each position? Oh I am sure there are a couple who feel they are qualified but what if they get voted out? Lets say a baker gets elected. Nothing against bakers but they are not Engineers. Sure he or she may know what are good personality and work ethics would be. But they wouldn't have the slightest idea of what certification a person would need and how to rate the different kinds. In fact all the person would have to do who is being interviewed is to be good public speakers or be "like minded" in the political approach. You don't think this is the case then you need to pay attention to who gets appointed to different commissions. This who thing is not about hiring quality people. It is about certain council members and a power trip.

(Report Comment)
Larry Bossaller January 20, 2010 | 9:37 p.m.

@Allan Sharrock make a point without knowing it. His comments basically say that the City Manager knows everything about a department head qualifications, but the City Council couldn't know enough to evaluate the department head qualifications. You have to put forth some effort and time to evaluate properly, but it can be done.

Mr. Sharrock, I would rather have a group of people evaluating someone qualifications than one person. No brainer.

If Mr. Thornhill has been trained in Management with IBM or other highly esteem management companies, I would like to know because his actions and comments certainly don't reveal the high management practices. My young son could be a partner, therefore a manager. Get the point!

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock January 21, 2010 | 3:43 p.m.

Larry I would rather have a group of people evaluate than a singe person but I would want that to be a group of peers and not political persons. Do you think they would even have the time to train themselves? They already spend 20 hrs a week trying to meet our needs now they need to get trained. I hear you points but I guess we can agree to disagree. It is your opinion and you are entitled to it.

(Report Comment)

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