Talks began in December regarding finding a new Newcastle city manager

January 22, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

UPDATED — 5:12 p.m. Jan. 22, 2010

Talks regarding firing Newcastle City Manager John Starbard and appointing former Community Development Director Rob Wyman as interim city manager began privately in December.

While Newcastle councilmen-elect John Dulcich, Bill Erxleben and Rich Crispo said they had been in favor of making changes to the city’s management, Erxleben specifically sought out Wyman in December as a candidate for interim city manager.

Erxleben discussed the matter with Dulcich and Crispo, and such talks were legal because the councilmen-elect had not been sworn into office.

Individuals who have been elected to serve on the City Council, but have not yet been sworn into office are not legally held to restrictions as to whom they can speak with about city business, as determined by the State of Washington Court of Appeals case Wood v. Battle Ground School District.

At an additional City Council meeting Jan. 12, the council voted 6-1 to terminate Starbard’s contract without cause, effective immediately. In another 6-1 vote that night, the council appointed Wyman to take over as interim city manager.

However, the council did not consider other candidates for the position, nor was there discussion at the meeting regarding Wyman before a motion was made to appoint him as interim city manager.

Tim Ford, ombudsman for the Washington State Attorney General, said when a City Council takes action without much public discussion, it may give members of the public the impression that decisions were made in private, possibly violating the law.

“The perception is that there was a secret meeting by the council,” Ford said, adding that such perceptions may or may not be true.

Wyman said he spoke with Dulcich and Erxleben in 2009 about the city manager position.

Also, Erxleben and Councilman Steve Buri met together with Wyman in person in 2009, and Erxleben said he used the opportunity to inquire whether Wyman would be interested in taking the city manager position if it were to become vacant. However, Buri said at the time he wasn’t considering Wyman as a replacement for Starbard.

Wyman said he also met with Crispo in 2009, but Crispo said he was using the opportunity to learn more about Wyman.

However, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said holding discussions in this manner calls into question the ethics of the situation.

“One could certainly say that they violated the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act,” he said.

Nixon said although the Newcastle council members did not appear to violate state law, he said their behavior would have gotten them into trouble in states with more stringent open-government laws, like Florida.

In Florida, the law also treats members-elect the same as officeholders, and members cannot discuss business that could come before their jurisdiction, regardless of whether a quorum is present. Nixon said he felt members-elect should behave as though they are already members of the governing body, by moderating their nonmeeting discussions.

Councilwomen Lisa Jensen and Carol Simpson and Buri said they had also individually discussed Starbard with one or more of the councilmen-elect in December.

Buri said he and Simpson also casually discussed their feelings regarding Wyman.

According to the Open Public Meetings Act, a City Council quorum — a majority of the council — may not privately meet and discuss city business. A quorum in Newcastle would be four or more members. City Council members interviewed separately said they did not discuss the city manager situation as a quorum.

Councilman Sonny Putter represented the only dissenting opinion in both terminating Starbard’s contract and appointing Wyman.

After Erxleben made the motion at the Jan. 12 meeting to appoint Wyman as interim city manager, Putter said Wyman was unfit for the job. Putter also said it was at the meeting that he first heard Wyman was being considered to take over as interim city manager.

Putter cited Wyman’s lack of experience, because Wyman has never served as a city manager before. Putter also said Wyman had an illness issue, although he would not elaborate on what the issue was nor how it would affect Wyman’s ability to serve as interim city manager.

Wyman said he has no illness issues that would hinder his ability to act as interim city manger.

Putter also said Wyman is ethically compromised, because Wyman made a $500 contribution to Dulcich’s council campaign in the summer, according to Public Disclosure Commission records.

During his campaign, Dulcich received more than $12,000 in contributions to his campaign from 88 different individuals. The largest contribution he received from a donor was $1,000, while the second largest was $500. There were four $500 donors.

In an interview after the meeting, Putter referred to the International City Manager’s Association code of ethics, which states, “refrain from participation in the election of the members of the employing legislative body,” and Putter acknowledged that Wyman was not a city manager at the time of his contributions.

“This is not a legal matter,” Putter said. “It’s a matter of ethics and perceptions.”

Putter also said that should have prompted the council to look for a different individual for the position.

“With so many other potential interim city managers out there, why would we choose one who is under a cloud?” Putter asked in an interview after the meeting.

Wyman said he had no plans of returning to the city when he made his contribution to Dulcich in August.

“There was absolutely no inkling of a thought that this could happen back then,” Wyman said regarding being appointed as the city’s interim city manager.

Dulcich said Wyman’s contribution was not influential, and Dulcich cited the diversity in the contributions he received.

Dulcich also said appointing Wyman quickly was necessary, because there is little room for error in the economic climate, and having a leader is important.

“You need someone at the helm,” Dulcich said. “I think it was prudent the way it was done. It was fiscally responsible.”

He said appointing Wyman was a better idea than appointing a current city staff member, because Wyman has more experience with the city than any current staff member.

“In my mind, although he had a break from the city, he is a senior staff member,” Dulcich said. “I have no doubt that we did the right thing.”

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