A possible lawsuit has temporarily derailed the Urbana City Council's discussion of an important issue.
Urbana City Council members Eric Jakobsson and Diane Marlin had barely begun a presentation about their proposal for more equitable treatment of city employees Monday when they were warned to be quiet.
City Attorney Jim Simon advised them that it would be safer if they said nothing because a former city employee who alleges she wasn't treated in an equitable manner is threatening litigation over her dismissal.
Simon's stance was prudent, but Jakobsson and Marlin are on to something when they suggest that their fellow council members limit the mayor's authority to appoint or not reappoint roughly 30 positions on an annual basis. That kind of blunderbuss authority the mayor wields not only creates the possibility of arbitrary dismissals but also costly litigation.
Jakobsson and Marlin, despite some protests, ultimately acquiesced to the city attorney's request. But earlier in the day, they released copies of their proposal as well as a lengthy statement explaining why they made it.
"We believe it is timely for the City of Urbana to review its personnel policies and procedures to ensure we have consistent, fair and clear employment practices. We must follow generally recognized best practices in human-resource management for all employees," they said.
Their proposal is the result of Mayor Prussing's decision in June to dismiss longtime city employee Liz Walden, an accounting supervisor who is married to former city Chief Administrative Officer Bruce Walden. The mayor ousted Bruce Walden from his position not long after she was elected to her first term in office, and the bad blood between the two is undeniable.
Prussing, until a lawsuit finds otherwise, had the authority to reappoint or not reappoint Walden because she held one of 30 appointive positions in city government. Marlin and Jakobsson want to reduce the number of appointive positions to 10, including fire and police chiefs, city attorney, comptroller and chief of staff.
They said their goal is to "balance the need of the mayor to bring in his or her management team in a new administration against the need of all city employees, including mayoral appointees, to have the safeguards of due process." They said they hope the proposed changes will "establish a more professional and positive work environment" in the city.
Their goal is a laudable one. Even absent the controversy over Prussing's action, it seems obvious that this kind of appointment power for lower-level employees is a throwback to an earlier, less-enlightened day.
Further, it is highly inequitable that some lower-level city employees have protection against summary dismissal while others do not. That kind of imbalance does not make sense.
That's not to say that this personnel plan does not deserve serious scrutiny by the mayor and council members. Perhaps there is a sound defense for the status quo. If so, the public deserves to hear it.
Mayor Prussing has denied it, but the Walden dismissal struck many as improperly personal in tone, a circumstance not to be repeated. The Marlin/Jakobsson proposal is a vehicle for achieving that goal.