Two in Urbana looking at mayoral appointments
URBANA — In the wake of a shake-up in the city's finance department, two council members are beginning work on a proposal that they hope will provide some protection to employees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
Alderman Eric Jakobsson, D-Ward 2, and Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, were among the most vocal during a city council meeting this month when the city's accounting supervisor was not invited to return to her job. Later in that meeting, her boss, Comptroller Bill DeJarnette, announced his sudden retirement, citing a "toxic" work environment.
About 30 employees who hold their jobs by virtue of mayoral appointment may be re-appointed annually — or not — at Mayor Laurel Prussing's will. This month, Prussing presented her annual list of re-appointments without Accounting Supervisor Liz Walden's name on it.
That means Walden will not be allowed to return to her job as of July 1, when her appointment expires. Walden said she was given no reason for her dismissal, despite consistent work evaluations that said she was meeting or exceeding all of her job responsibilities.
After a surprise closed session to discuss the "personnel issues" for which Prussing said she dismissed Walden, council members said they were powerless to do anything to stop it as they cannot force the mayor to add or remove any individual name from that list. Council members approved the list — which excluded Walden — and not long after, DeJarnette announced his immediate retirement.
"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," DeJarnette told the city council in a prepared statement.
Prussing was not available for comment on Thursday, but she has said she plans to document in writing the specific reasons Walden was not allowed to return. She has also said the work environment in city hall has significantly improved since she took office eight years ago.
In the meantime, Jakobsson said the situation has left a gap in the finance department while city officials grapple with a tight budget and other concerns. Between DeJarnette and Walden, the two had more than 50 years of experience working for the city.
"I'm very concerned about the city having lost, basically, its institutional memory in the finance department," Jakobsson said.
It is a "distraction," he said — not to mention the fact that DeJarnette was a key player in directing the rollout of Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband across the community.
"We've got a terrific problem in dealing with the revenue shortfall," Jakobsson said. "We've got a big problem, in terms of working with Champaign, how to expand the Big Broadband."
He said city infrastructure and its maintenance is another concern as the city tries to move forward.
"All these things really demand that we be on the same page and we be focused on them, and I think it's very hard to do that when people are concerned about their job," Jakobsson said.
The situation that played out during that June 17 city council meeting has raised questions about the work environment in city hall while Jakobsson and Marlin work on legislation they hope will change it.
"It will be best human relations practices both for supervising people and considering them for termination or non-re-employment," Jakobsson said on Thursday.
The two are drafting a proposal that would set guidelines for informing at-will employees of problems with their performance, working with them to correct the issues and giving them the opportunity to rectify the situation, Jakobsson said.
"That's how people should be treated in the workplace," he said. "Not everybody is, but I think Urbana should be an example of this."
Marlin said the city is "long overdue" for a revision in its supervision and management practices.
"It's good to review management practices from time to time," Marlin said.
There is no timeline for their proposal yet. Both council members said they are in the early stages of drafting an ordinance, and they plan to speak one-on-one with other council members when they have something they might be ready to present.
"Once Diane and I have an outline for what we'd like to see, then we'll start communicating, each of us, one-on-one with different council members so we can get a sense of where other council members are and what they'd like to see," Jakobsson said.
He said the employment records that Walden made public herself showed that her performance was "exemplary," and it has other appointed employees wondering what could happen to them.
"I think people are looking over their shoulders and keeping their heads down," Jakobsson said. "People are very, very concerned about what happened and concerned about whether they're at risk or not."
The proposal is "new territory," Jakobsson said. Typically council members defer to the expertise of city employees to draft proposals and ordinances, but they are not involving city staff in this decision "because we don't want to put them in that position."
"This has just come out of the blue," Marlin said, "so we're still trying to process it and figure out where to go from here."