Newcastle City Manager John Starbard fired
February 4, 2010
By Tim Pfarr
Former community development director named as replacement
At a special City Council meeting Jan. 12, the council voted 6-1 to terminate City Manager John Starbard’s contract without cause, effective immediately. The only dissenting vote was Councilman Sonny Putter.
In terminating Starbard’s contract without cause, the city must pay Starbard his full salary for six months as severance pay. Starbard’s total severance pay will be $66,500, as his annual salary was $133,000. Starbard will not receive benefits in his severance package.
In another 6-1 vote, with Putter dissenting once more, the council appointed Rob Wyman, former community development director for the city, to take over as interim city manager for the next six months.
Wyman worked for the city from 1998-2006, most recently as community development director. He left the city to work in the private sector.
Wyman took over Jan. 13 as Newcastle’s new city manager. According to his contract with the city, Wyman will be paid $10,000 a month, more than $1,000 less than the city paid Starbard per month, without benefits. Wyman will be paid as a consultant, and will not receive benefits.
The City Council approved Wyman’s contract at its regular meeting Jan. 19.
Before the vote Jan. 12, the council met in a closed executive session to discuss personnel issues. As city manager, Starbard usually participated in executive sessions but was told not to attend this one.
Upon reconvening the council meeting, Councilman Bill Erxleben moved to terminate Starbard’s contract; Councilman Rich Crispo seconded the motion.
During discussion, nearly every member of the council gave his or her opinion.
“Voters want the city to head in a new direction,” Erxleben said, later adding, “The new direction is fiscal discipline, neighborhood responsiveness and maintenance of the city’s streets, parks and trails.”
Crispo said there was a discrepancy between Starbard’s vision for the city and the wishes of city residents.
“I believe that what he thinks it can become is very different from what the residents want it to become,” Crispo said, adding that residents have told him of their aversion to a multistory downtown and the city’s new signage and branding efforts.
Deputy Mayor Steve Buri said the city’s relationships with other agencies have deteriorated with Starbard as city manager, and he said he would support the motion because of that.
“I think those relationships, sadly, have been damaged beyond repair,” he said.
Putter dissented in the vote.
“I think this motion is far too premature,” he said.
Putter said in an interview after the meeting that the council had given Starbard above-average reviews in evaluating his performance at the end of the year. He also said if council members were unhappy with Starbard’s job performance, Starbard should have been given time to change.
“Any employee is entitled to an opportunity to improve their performance before they are let go,” Putter said.
The review at the end of 2009 was regarding Starbard’s 2008 performance.
Former Councilman Dan Hubbell corroborated Putter’s statements about Starbard’s review, and said the review was positive overall with a few exceptions.
“The review certainly included areas that needed to be improved,” Hubbell said.
Buri emphasized that the review was of Starbard’s 2008 performance.
“It’s not entirely fair to say the last review he received was glowing,” he said, although he would not comment further.
Council members Lisa Jensen and Carol Simpson, and former council members Ben Varon and Jean Garber were members of the City Council at the time of Starbard’s 2008 review, but none of them would comment.
There were no written documents concerning Starbard’s review, according to City Clerk Bob Baker.
After voting to terminate Starbard’s contract, Mayor John Dulcich asked if Starbard would be willing to privately meet with Buri and Baker to further discuss the termination. Starbard declined, saying he would not discuss the matter with city officials without legal representation. He then set his keys on his desk in the council chambers and left the meeting.
Reached at home, Starbard declined to comment further on his employment being terminated, saying he had hired legal counsel.
A new city manager
After the City Council voted to terminate Starbard, Erxleben motioned to appoint Wyman. He said he previously spoke with Wyman, and Wyman said he would take the job.
Erxleben said Wyman’s familiarity with the community, his experience working with commercial property and his ability to effectively work with the business community made him a good candidate for the interim city manager position.
Putter represented the only dissenting opinion in terminating Starbard’s contract and appointing Wyman.
Putter said Wyman was unfit for the job. He cited Wyman’s lack of experience, noting Wyman has never served as a city manager. 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.
Wyman said he has no illness that would hinder his ability to act as interim city manager.
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 individuals. The largest contribution he received from a donor was $1,000; 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.
Dulcich said Wyman’s contribution was not influential, and cited the diversity in the contributions he received.