Firing city manager shows poor leadership by council


Days after the Iowa City City Council voted to fire City Manager Michael Lombardo, locals are still standing with hands in the air wondering, “What the hell just happened?”

Lombardo’s termination came less than a year after the council hired him. The former city manager and councilors have been tight-lipped about why the firing came about, saying they’re not allowed to discuss personnel issues.

The actions seemed to come out of nowhere. In the face of such a shocking move, it’s hard not to side with many in the community who suspect something fishy is going on behind the council chamber’s closed doors.

Lombardo’s tenure certainly wasn’t easy; he had to deal with what some have called the worst natural disaster in local history as well as a the beginnings of a brutally tight budget. Especially while dealing with dollars and cents, he sometimes made decisions that were unpopular with officials and citizens alike. However, being able to make unpopular decisions is exactly the point of having an appointed city manager instead of a more powerful mayor. We hope the councilors didn’t fire Lombardo because they feared his decisions would reflect poorly on them during their next re-election bids.

Mayor Regenia Bailey said she has no plans to fill in the public on specifics of the council’s reasons to fire Lombardo. She and the rest of the council are right to decline comment on Lombardo’s termination; their lips are necessarily sealed when it comes to personnel matters.

So, while we can’t take issue with the way the council is dealing with Lombardo’s firing, we are quite concerned that Iowa City’s elected officials spent so much time and effort finding Lombardo, only to lose confidence in him a year later. After Steve Atkins — who spent more than 20 years as city manager — stepped down, Iowa City officials launched two searches and spent thousands in taxpayer dollars to find a new lead administrator. The council picked Lombardo out of a field of qualified candidates, and he was installed in May 2008.

A year later, the time, money, and effort spent to find and hire Lombardo — not to mention what has been paid of his hefty $160,000 salary — has been all but wasted. Rather than demanding answers on why Lombardo was booted from his post — answers councilors couldn’t give, even if they wanted to — citizens should be asking why the council so wastefully hired him in the first place.

Still, without real reasons for the city manager’s removal, citizens are inevitably going to be left to speculate. Commentors on newspaper websites have jumped to conclusions about shady dealings behind the public’s back. None of those claims can be proven, of course, but it would still be advisable for Lombardo himself to step up and clear his name. While the council is forced to keep quiet, he has every right to talk about what happened during his evaluation last week.

But instead, he has been just as reluctant to discuss specifics. He declined an interview with the DI and gave vague answers to other news outlets. That’s out of character for an official who often made a point of being accessible to the media or inquiring citizens.

There is a bright spot in this messy situation, though: Assistant City Manager Dale Helling will serve as the interim city manager. The councilors have yet to make any moves toward finding a permanent replacement, and we urge them to take their time. Helling has been with the city for three decades, and by all accounts, he has been a very effective leader. We have total confidence in his ability to lead the city through tough times.

Meanwhile, we urge our elected officials to put some real thought into who they pick as the next city manager. We hope there’s no need to write a similar editorial 12 months from now.

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