Council member apologizes

Towny Anderson says he feels 'regretful' about Hughes' firing

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A City Council member said he wants to apologize for the method used to fire the city manager last week.

Towny Anderson said Wed--nesday that he apologizes to City Manager Paul Hughes. Anderson and four other members voted last week to terminate Hughes' contract effective Dec. 31. Hughes, who has been city manager for 7 1/2 years, had announced his plans to retire. He was going to remain in the position until his replacement was hired.

"It was not me. It was unfortunate; it was messy," Anderson said. "I am regretful for how it was done. Apologies are inadequate."

Anderson stressed that he regrets the way the firing was carried out, not that it happened.

Anderson also wanted to apologize to council members Loui Antonucci and Paul Strong, who voted against the termination.

"I feel like I violated Loui's trust and Paul's trust, and I'll never let that happen again," Anderson said.

Anderson, who was elected to the council in November, said he did not have a full understanding of the council's options when firing an employee.

The day the council fired Hughes, members met in executive session. Executive sessions are private meetings that are legal under specific circumstances. According to council members, they consulted City Attorney Tony Lettunich about legal issues related to Hughes but did not discuss with one another in detail the options for terminating Hughes' contract.

Anderson said he did not understand that the council could have met under a different section of the statute to discuss the issue with one another. Therefore, Anderson said, he would like the council to draft a policy outlining the options for firing an employee.

"There is not a policy for us to turn to, to guide us to ensure that this is done in a dignified manner," he said. He wants the council, as well as future councils, to know "how it can be done to preserve the dignity of everyone involved."

Strong said the options for executive sessions are listed within state statutes but that he understood there was a learning curve for new council members. He said rules, statutes and other information are handed out during a council retreat. This year the retreat was later than usual; it occurred after the firing.

"Maybe that information should be handed out immediately," Strong said.

Council President Ken Brenner said he wasn't sure that Anderson's idea for a policy would help the City Council.

"The dynamics of a group in public service make it difficult to have written policy work every time," Brenner said.

Antonucci said he has never seen the need for a written policy related to the council's employees.

"If anyone has anything to say about it, the appropriate thing to do is say it in executive session," Antonucci said.

Antonucci has said the council should have discussed in detail the possibility of terminating Hughes' contract during executive session. Then, he said, the council could have given Hughes the option to retire immediately and with privacy.

That is an option Anderson said he didn't know the council had. However, he said, using a different method of discussing the issue may not have led to a different result.

"The result may not have been any different. But if we changed how it was done, it may not have caused the uproar that it has," he said.

Brenner said this isn't the time for the council to look back.

"It's really easy in hindsight to look at this and say, 'I wish we had done something different,'" he said.

Brenner said it is time for the council to focus on selecting an interim city manager and Hughes' replacement.

"The fact is, five council members gave pretty clear direction. That's the decision," he said.

Brenner and council member Susan Dellinger take exception to the statement that Hughes was "fired." Dellinger said that Hughes had already announced his retirement and had a retirement agreement, which means that his employment was day to day, at the council's pleasure.

According to the city's home rule charter, the council has the authority to hire and fire two employees: the city manager and the city attorney. The charter also states that the council may terminate the city manager's employment at a regular or special meeting.

Hughes' "agreement for professional services" states that he may be fired with or without cause. It also states that "the City Manager serves at the pleasure of the City Council; that there exists no contract for or right to employment."

According to Hughes' retirement agreement, he will receive a lump sum cash payment of $58,766.03 because his employment was terminated without cause. He also would have re----ceived the payment if he had worked until a new city manager was hired or if he had worked until November 2006.

--o reach Dana Strongin, call 871-4229

or e-mail dstrongin@steamboatpilot.com

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