//Sudden agenda item: fire Benson City Manager without telling him first?

Sudden agenda item: fire Benson City Manager without telling him first?

By Terri Jo Neff

Councilmember:  We’re not doing our job
No annual performance review for 3 years
Contract termination clause could provoke $45K payment
BENSON – Bill Stephens has served as Benson’s city manager for three years and on several occasions during that time he has received praise from mayor Toney King.  But at the March 27 council meeting, a new business agenda item read “discussion and consideration of employment, dismissal, salaries, disciplining or resignation of the City Manager.”  It was placed on the agenda by mayor King without Stephens’ knowledge.

The agenda item puzzled several residents, property owners, and business leaders, many of whom addressed the council in support of Stephens. Some also commented on the suddenness of the agenda item, noting nothing had been said or presented at prior meetings to indicate Stephens was thinking of quitting or that there were problems with his performance.
The most puzzled person seemed to be Stephens himself. When asked by the mayor if he would like to comment on the agenda item, Stephens replied that no one from the council had advised him what prompted the agenda item. “I can’t make a statement as I don’t know what it’s about,” Stephens explained.
Stephens took over as Benson’s city manager on March 31, 2014. He is a retired Air Force colonel whose military duties were similar to those performed by a municipality’s chief operating officer.

According to his employment agreement, Stephens must provide a 60 day notice to the City if he wants to resign, but the council may terminate him for cause at any time. However, if the council ends his employment without cause Stephens is due half his nearly $90,000 base salary.
Discussion of personnel issues is generally done in executive session, outside of public view and without public record of who says what. However, Stephens invoked his right to have the council discuss his employment in front of nearly 50 people.
It turned into a contentious meeting, with former councilman DonBuchanan being removed by police chief Paul Moncado and mayor King threatening another former city council member, Jeff Cook, with removal from the meeting.

Few details were given about why terminating Stephens’ employment was under consideration. Comments by mayor King and councilmen Pat Boyle and Joe Konrad suggested some current and former employees complained in private about Stephens’ “management style.”
There were also allusions to the possibility other staffers may depart under Stephens’ leadership. However, no specific incidents or employee conflicts were discussed.
Councilman David Lambert pointed out it is not the job of the council “to micromanage” city operations or the city manager. Lambert, who is serving his third term on council, also called out the lack of any examples of what Stephens may be doing wrong.
Former vice mayor Lori McGoffin chided her fellow council members for allowing employees to go “outside the chain of command” about workplace issues when they should be talking with a supervisor instead. She also noted that any complaints about Stephens should be brought to the entire council, not only one member.
In the end, it was newly elected councilwoman Crystal Lewie who suggested an option that appeared to satisfy all parties, for now. Lewie addressed the fact that Stephens has not been provided an annual performance review as required in his contract.  “We’re not doing our job,” Lewie said of the administrative lapse.
The council then voted 7-0 to meet soon to draft the review which they will present to Stephens. City attorney Gary Cohen is available to assist with the process.
Before the vote, Stephens noted the difficulty of having “seven bosses” on the council and that he sometimes receives conflicting input from them. He is eager, Stephens explained, to receive clear direction moving forward and welcomes the opportunity to hear what the full council expects of him.
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 or cjw_media@yahoo.com