Urbana council had no power over Prussing decision
URBANA — Urbana City Council members say they were powerless this week to stop what would eventually happen as Mayor Laurel Prussing did not invite the city's accounting supervisor to return to her post.
Not long after, Comptroller Bill DeJarnette cited a "toxic environment" and what he called bullying as he announced a sudden retirement at Monday night's city council meeting. That puts the finance department down two employees and 50-plus years of experience.
"If I quietly stood by and acted water-cooler brave, it would show that I condone this behavior, and I do not," DeJarnette said as he read a prepared statement to the city council.
DeJarnette did not refer to the termination of his department's accounting supervisor, but he made it 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.
While the city council approves the list, council members themselves have no authority to add or remove names from it.
"We can't override her decision, and we vote it up or down," said Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1.
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 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.
On Tuesday, Smyth said council members made their opinions known during that closed session, but they did not have any authority beyond that to influence Prussing's decision.
"Individual council members gave her their advice in private," Smyth said. "We can provide our opinions to her."
When they returned, they made no additional comment and approved 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 services manager 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."
On Tuesday, Smyth defended the work environment Prussing has created.
"That part I disagree with Bill," Smyth said. "It's not toxic. It's not bullying. I've watched things happen for the last eight years, and it's a pretty relaxed environment."
He credits Prussing with that workplace.
"As council members, we're given great access to the employees, to the managers to get things done," Smyth said. "That's one of the greatest differences between the last two terms I've completed versus the one I did long ago."
Marlin, however, said the "bullying" aspect is very concerning to her. She said she has experienced it herself, but preferred not to delve into specifics.
"I've had other encounters similar to last night (Monday)," Marlin said. "And I think going forward there has to be an atmosphere of cooperation and respect."
She said employees, council members and members of the public should be able to "express an opinion without blowback." She added that DeJarnette "was sincere in what he said, and I really think things need to change."
She also thinks there should be some kind of appeals process for employees who serve at the will of the mayor.
"They have no due process," Marlin said. "They have no independent set of eyes to look at a situation and no third party to kind of evaluate what the facts are, and it leads to situations just like we have where it's one word against another."
Jakobsson 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.