Job flap raises questions

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's decision not to reappoint a longtime city employee to her post has raised a ruckus.

Personnel disputes are often difficult to understand, but one need not be unduly skeptical to question Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing's decision to terminate the employment of a political foe's wife.

Prussing's decision not to reappoint Liz Walden, the wife of former city administrative officer Bruce Walden, to her position as an accounting supervisor in the city's finance department caused a big flap at Monday's city council meeting, and for good reason.

Throwing a longtime city employee, one whose employee evaluations are solid, out on her ear is a serious thing. Just how serious it is was reflected by the decision of Walden's supervisor, Comptroller Bill DeJarnette, to quit on the spot in protest.

DeJarnette characterized the mayor's action as an abuse of her reappointment power and said he could not stand by and watch it happen.

"If I quietly stood by and acted water-cooler brave, it would show that I condone this behavior, and I do not," he said, characterizing the mayor's behavior as "bullying" and describing the workplace environment in the city as "toxic."

The retirement of Comptroller Ron Eldridge, the non-reappointment of Walden and the resignation of DeJarnette complete the decapitation of the city's leadership in the all-important finance department.

It also may reinforce Prussing's reputation as an irrepressible bull always in search of a china shop. City officials say they tried to talk the mayor out of her decision not to reappoint Walden, arguing that it was not only unwise, but also an unnecessary distraction from more important issues.

But Prussing paid no heed, stating that she based her decision on "events that have been happening that I found out about," whatever that means.

Alderwoman Diane Marlin said the council will hold a closed-door executive session with Prussing on July 8 to learn more, but she expressed unhappiness with the situation.

"I think we need to treat employees professionally," Marlin said.

Marlin also referred to the "long history" between Prussing and the Waldens.

The mayor has now terminated the employment of both Bruce and Liz Walden from the city.

Bruce Walden, now at the University of Illinois, was Urbana's longtime chief administrative officer under the tenures of Mayors Jeffrey Markland and Tod Satterthwaite. He served briefly under Prussing when she was first elected eight years ago, before Prussing ousted him and then eliminated his position.

Since then, Prussing has periodically feuded with Walden and Satterthwaite. During her most recent run for mayor, Prussing suggested that both men were key players in the campaign of her Democratic primary challenger Les Stratton.

While critics can challenge the wisdom of Prussing's decision, there is no real debate about her authority not to reappoint Liz Walden. Roughly 30 city employees are subject to annual reappointment by the mayor, and if she doesn't reappoint them they're out. The city council ought to revisit that issue and consider awarding more traditional job protection to lower-level city officials now under to the appointment process.

What happened to Liz Walden cannot be going down well with those subject to Prussing's dictates.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on June 20, 2013 at 1:06 pm
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At some point, you may have to stop endorsing her.

Sid Saltfork wrote on June 20, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Maybe, she buys ads?  The conservative, one local newspaper would not have much local controversy to write about if competent mayors were elected.  2000 of Urbana's voters voted, and she won.  Urbana must be happy with her.  I am curious though about her base voters.  Who are the people who make up her base supporters?

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on June 20, 2013 at 4:06 pm

They are staff people; wealthy developers who will go along with her if she can get them free globs of money; and the University where her husband works.  IDOT, Hanson engineering; union contractors who are desperate for road work.