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Nothing fishy about city manager firing

BY GARY SANDERS, GUEST OPINION | APRIL 27, 2009 7:26 AM

“I certainly wouldn’t hire him again.”

Is that Iowa City Mayor Regenia Bailey talking about recently fired City Manager Michael Lombardo? No, it’s Allegan County, Mich., County Commissioner Steve McNeal. But McNeal is talking about Lombardo — referring to Lombardo’s four-year stint as Allegan County administrator. Smith couldn’t say more to because “personnel matters get sticky.” Sound familiar?

By firing Lombardo on April 17, after less than one year, with a unanimous 7-0 vote, the Iowa City City city councilors were admitting they had made a mistake in hiring him, and they were rectifying their mistake. They won’t go into details, simply saying it’s a “personnel matter.”

I know it’s frustrating, but we really don’t get to hear the details of why he was fired, just like we don’t get to know about the firings of hundreds of public officials across the country — including other city managers. And it doesn’t matter that Lombardo was a highly paid public employee and he got $80,000 in severance, or that he may or may not have had previous negative evaluations, or even warnings.

Focusing on what we have a “right” to know about the firing — such as the April 21 DI editorial suggesting that something “fishy” went on behind closed doors — is a distraction from the real issues; that Lombardo should have been fired, and people would have been prepared for it if the media had done their job.

I have absolutely no “inside information,” but it was obvious to me after watching the April 13 City Council/city manager budget-priorities session that Lombardo was in deep trouble. The council was perplexed, upset, and angry that he had not come to this meeting with what they had asked him to do — suggest recommendations on cutting the budget. Repeatedly, the councilors said they had wanted him to collect information from department heads on the possible results of cutting their departmental budgets and also present the council with choices and recommendations, as former 21-year City Manager Steve Atkins had done. Repeatedly, Lombardo said that before he could do that he needed some kind of broad framework. He looked like a deer in the headlights. He simply couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with their request. This wasn’t some grand clash of budget philosophies. He brought them data, when they had requested information. He did not follow a direct work order.

The media totally missed the drama of this meeting. There was so much tension in the room that it was very painful to watch. If I had been on the council, I would have pounded my fist on the table after five minutes and said “Look, Mike, if you can’t do what we asked you to do, then let’s get the hell out of here now.” But the councilors were very, very civil and patient. They were exasperated and angry, but calm. It wasn’t until the very end that an obviously frustrated Connie Champion said to Lombardo “until we have something to react to, this is a waste of our time and yours.” That should have been the headline the next day. It not only wasn’t the headline, the meeting was barely reported on — so people were shocked that Lombardo was fired four days later.

The media also missed the significance of what happened at the March 24 City Council meeting where the council shut Lombardo down, 7-0, on his idea to move the Iowa City Farmers’ Market. In 30 years in Iowa City, I have not seen a City Council vote down a city manager’s idea 7-0. (Steve Atkins would never do anything unless he had at least four votes from the council.) The press did not understand that this speedy, unanimous, and probably unprecedented vote was a big public slap-down.

At that meeting, the press also missed the significance of Lombardo publicly blaming a recreation department employee for an “untimely” press release, even though he himself had circumvented city staff in deciding to move the market. But the point is not whether moving the Farmers’ Market was a good idea or a bad idea — in the world of city managers, academic deans, or corporate executives, you simply do not publicly blame a subordinate when your idea is rejected.

The press also didn’t cover Lombardo’s April 9 meeting with the Farmers’ Market vendors, in which he was defensive and rude. (In contrast, I remember Atkins presenting his budget in 1987 to a contentious group of 50 members of the Democratic Socialists of America, and he was very courteous and forthcoming in his answers). Again, the problem wasn’t Lombardo’s stance on the market, it was his treatment of citizens.

As I wrote at the beginning, I have no inside knowledge of anything beyond what I’ve observed in public meetings. The press should have been writing about it, but it didn’t. As a subscriber to three newspapers, I want print media to last until I’m 90 years old, but unless the press starts doing as good a job covering and analyzing city councils, county boards of supervisors, and school boards as they do for Hawkeye football games, the public will always be startled when something dramatic happens, as it did when Lombardo was fired.


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