Talks began in December regarding new city manager

February 4, 2010

By Tim Pfarr

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

While 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. Elected officials who have not yet been sworn into office are not legally held to state laws governing public meetings.

At a 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.

Erxleben and Councilman Steve Buri also met with Wyman 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 that at that 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.

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

Buri and Councilwomen Lisa Jensen and Carol Simpson 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, who represented the only dissenting opinion in firing Starbard and appointing Wyman, said it was at the Jan. 12 meeting that he first heard Wyman was being considered to take over as interim city manager.

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

“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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