Council votes to terminate city manager

Robert Spinks woke up the morning of May 5 as Sequim’s chief of police but by lunchtime he was also the city’s interim city manager. Spinks was voted to the position by the city council in a 4-1 vote. In the same motion, the council majority agreed to fire city manager Bill Elliott. Elliot has been city manager since 2002. His termination unfolded during the council study session with Councilman Erik Erichsen requesting a 15-minute executive session regarding city personnel be added to the council agenda.

The council members filtered into the back room along with Elliott and city attorney Craig Ritchie, leaving the remainder of the staff in their seats. A few made light-hearted jokes about which one of them would get fired.

When the council, Elliott and Ritchie returned, Erichsen said he no longer believed Elliott was the person to run the city. According to Erichsen, Elliott had provided no position descriptions, staff goals or standards to the council after numerous requests. He had also, according to Erichsen, promised to bring council issues to the staff’s attention but had not. Council members Ken Hays, Susan Lorenzen and Mayor Laura Dubois concurred with Erichsen. Hays said that Elliott had shown a “lack of respect” toward the new council members and called his managerial style “laissez faire,” adding that Elliott had a history of hiring the wrong people to the staff.

“I just feel there’s incompatibility here,” Hays said.

Lorenzen pointed out that Elliott’s hiring of Jeff Robb of the Port of Port Angeles, as the city’s new Public Works director was unprofessional. Robb later declined the job offer.

A majority of Sequim’s staff members, including Spinks, were hired by Elliott following his arrival. Hearing of Elliott’s possible termination for the first time, many looked solemn and concerned.

“Which department is up next?” Spinks asked. “As police chief, am I meeting your expectations or should I start looking for other work?” Spinks went on to say that by firing Elliott, the council was “cutting off the head of the organization.”

Councilman Walt Schubert accused the four new council members of micromanaging.

“I think the four of you have done nothing but overwhelm staff,” Schubert said.

Councilman Paul McHugh said that he and Schubert were completely unaware of the rest of the council’s intent. He called into question whether the four newer members had been meeting or communicating their intent among themselves prior to the study session. Under the state’s Open Meetings Act, this would be illegal.

“When is the business of the city done now?” McHugh asked. “I hope someone will call them into question for that.”

According to Dubois, there were no private meetings held regarding Elliott’s termination, and Erichsen acted alone.

“Erik has had these issues since December,” Dubois said. “It sort of surprised me. Susan (Lorenzen) seemed really surprised.”

Dubois said that although she and the other three council members always have had goals, there was never a specific goal to fire Elliott.

Erichsen asked Elliott for either a plan of action in order to turn himself around or his resignation. Although Elliott said he would not go kicking and screaming, he would not give council his resignation either.

“I’m still confused as to what I’m supposed to be doing,” Elliott said. “What needs to be turned around? That’s what I’m fishing for.”

A second, five-minute executive session was called to discuss possible litigation. Elliott remained outside with staff, who gathered around him supportively.

“They are my council,” Elliott said. “I can’t speak to their motivation, but it’s their want. There’s not much I can do one way or another.”

When the council returned, McHugh, Hays and Elliott were all in agreement that a motion should be made and voted on whether to terminate Elliott’s position.

“I wish you would just do it,” Elliott said.

Hays presented a motion and although Dubois tried not to accept the motion, the council majority won out. The council voted 4-1 to terminate Elliott pending 30 days notice. Schubert had left by the time of the vote and Councilman Bill Huizinga was absent.

Elliott will be on paid suspension for those 30 days. In that time, Ritchie will investigate whether the termination had just cause. If so, council will follow through with the terms of agreement stipulated in Elliott’s contract with the city.

Spinks, in an interoffice memorandum written later in the day to city staff, said Bill (Elliott) was a mentor and a professional peer, “so this interim appointment for me is extremely painful.” He went on to say “the goal now has to be to continue to do our jobs to the best of our ability and to continue to run the city in the customer-friendly manner you have all been doing.”

Spinks asked city staff for their help in doing the job as interim city manager and promised to help them do their jobs.

“I will try to keep everyone informed of new directions requested by the city council or by new legislation,” he wrote. “I will try to clearly set forth what is expected of each of us.”
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