URBANA – After watching one of his co-workers lose her job, the city's acting comptroller announced his immediate retirement during Monday night's city council meeting, citing a “toxic environment” and what he called bullying.
His announcement came after the city council confirmed Mayor Laurel Prussing's decision to not reappoint the city's accounting supervisor to her post as of July 1. That puts the city's finance department down two employees.
“If I quietly stood by and acted water cooler brave, it would show that I condone this behavior and I do not,” said Comptroller Bill DeJarnette.
DeJarnette did not refer to the termination of his department's accounting supervisor in a statement he read to the city council, but he made it very clear in his surprise announcement that he did not agree with how city staff have been treated.
“A fortune is being spent nationwide on dealing with bullying,” DeJarnette said. “One doesn't have to look far to find it in the workplace.”
About 30 city employees who hold their jobs by virtue of mayoral appointment must be reappointed annually in order to stay in those positions. That list was before the city council for approval on Monday night.
This year, the only exclusion on the list was Accounting Supervisor Liz Walden, who will now be out of a job as of July 1. Walden, who is married to former Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Walden, said she has been given no reason for what effectively is her termination after 24 years with the city of Urbana.
Prussing said she has not reappointed four people in her eight years as mayor. One of those four people was Bruce Walden, whom Prussing did not allow to return as the city's chief administrative officer in 2007. The position was never filled, though the mayor did hire a chief of staff in 2009.
Prussing cited personnel issues when she did not invite Bruce Walden to return, as she is now doing with Liz Walden. Prussing's decision to end Bruce Walden's job became a political issue in the years to follow, though she said Liz Walden's termination is a different situation.
“The news of this decision came as a shock to me, and has made me physically ill for a week now,” Liz Walden told the city council on Monday night.
She read from her most recent work appraisal, which was completed on Jan. 24 by her supervisor, then-Comptroller Ron Eldridge, who has since retired. Walden met or exceeded all the evaluation points in the review.
“I do my job well, and I can prove it,” Walden said.
Before the item was called for a vote, Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, announced he would ask that Walden be allowed to keep her job, that she be informed in writing of the “personnel issues” that prompted her termination and that she be allowed to work with her supervisor to address those issues.
He said he would request that “in full knowledge” that appointed city employees serve at the pleasure of the mayor and that she may choose not to reappoint them at her will.
“However, because an individual has the right to do something does not make that the right thing to do,” Jakobsson said.
When the item was called for a vote, Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, asked Prussing for an explanation. Prussing responded by saying it was not appropriate to discuss personnel issues in public and that she had planned on scheduling a closed session meeting to discuss the matter on July 8.
“I think it's out of order and if you want to have an executive session, I'm happy to have one,” Prussing said.
Council members called for a closed session right then and there. When they returned, they made no additional comment and approved of the annual staff appointment list, which excluded Walden.
Later in the meeting, when DeJarnette was scheduled to speak on the new city budget set to take effect July 1, he made his surprise announcement.
“If by my standing up and taking the professional and financial consequences of my beliefs it might foster change in this toxic environment, then it was worth it,” he said.
DeJarnette took the comptroller job after his predecessor, Eldridge, retired in January. He had previously been the city's information technologies head and retained those responsibilities until Monday night.
In the meantime, Prussing said the city likely will look for temporary help to cover the gaps in the finance department while officials look for a permanent solution.
“The city of Urbana is an outstanding city,” DeJarnette said. “But if our largest investment and greatest asset, our staff, is consistently rendered impotent through intimidation, a lack of an organizational structure that embraces strong group decisions that seeks consensus without fear of repercussion and lacks a strong moral ethic to provide protection from unfair and unjust practices, then the city will continue to stifle efficiency, hemorrhage quality staff and fail to hire the best and brightest.”
Prussing said she was not surprised by DeJarnette's immediate retirement.
“I had wind of it, so I figured that was going to happen,” Prussing said.
She said she is sorry to see him leave, but his comments were “off-base.” She thinks the work environment in city hall was worse before she was elected eight years ago.
“I think that's what I changed, but obviously in politics there are very different opinions, and I think most people understand the atmosphere here was vastly changed when I got to be mayor,” Prussing said. “And it was changed for the better.”
Jakobsson later called it a “very serious situation.”
“If we don't have reasonably transparent processes that are fair, we're not going to have a staff,” he said.