Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Lombardo Firing Mystery

April 21, 2009, 6:30 a.m.

Reason for Lombardo Departure Looking More and More Like Governance Issues
(brought to you by FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com*)

[Today's blog entry is a follow-up to Nicholas Johnson, "River City's Problem: Council-Manager Governance; The Necessity of Governance Theory and Practice," April 18, 2009, which see for text and links.]

For reasons as unknown as the Council's reasons for firing Michael Lombardo, the two page-one stories under the Press-Citizen's bold, banner, top-of-the-fold headline this morning -- "What Does Firing Mean For City?" -- are nowhere to be found on its online site.

The page-three story -- "Council OKs Opening Sidewalks" -- is there. Indeed, it is the top-listed story for the day in the online edition. So it's not like the Tuesday paper's stories haven't been posted yet.

[It's a relatively insignificant sidebar compared with Lombardo's termination, but what's this sidewalk deal about? If I want to rent an apartment or office up over a downtown merchant's store I'll have to pay. Why? It's "her property." Well, the sidewalk is "my property," as a taxpayer. Either the City holds title to the property, and taxpayers paid to pave it, or if the merchant paid to pave it the use of sidewalks is controlled by the City. Last time I talked to a City worker, cleaning up vomit and blood from in front of the bars on Sunday early morning, the City was footing that bill. Since I have to clean the snow from the walks in front of my home, I assume if the taxpayers are paying to clean up the walks in front of the merchant's business the walks must belong to the City. Moreover, if I were paying to use the merchant's apartment it would not be a business for me. When the merchant uses my sidewalk he is profiting from using my property. What are the merchants paying back to the City for their profitable use of this very valuable real estate? Or is it just a gift from grateful taxpayers? "Inquiring minds would like to know." This is not about the merits of the use itself -- "ugly clutter" to some is a "charming addition to quality of life" for others -- so you can take your pick. I'm just conceerned about basic financial fairness.]

But the stories suggest the reason for his departure is looking more and more like the result of the Council's poor handling of fundamental governance issues. Brian Morelli, "Area Officials Have Differing Views on Decision's Impact," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2009, p. A1, and Chris Rhatigan, "Lombardo Says No Reason Given," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 21, 2009, p. A1.

Morelli's story reveals, to no one's surprise, that there appear to be no advocates for the view that the City is actually better off as a result of the City Council's mysterious and peremtory firing of its City Manager, Michael Lombardo. Some point out how the City is worse off, trying to manage without a City Manager "major business such as the upcoming sales tax vote, flood recovery or . . . budget cuts." The best that Council members can come up with is Mayor Regenia Bailey's comment that "We have an excellent staff in place. I don't have any concern about the city's operations."

In short, the Council's actions have in fact harmed the City's welfare -- and when its timing couldn't have been worse.

Given the terms of his contract, that provide for a forfeiture of any severance pay in the event of violations of law, financial or moral terpitude, and the fact that the $80,000 severance has been paid, we need to look for other possible reasons for the termination.

Is it, perhaps, that Lombardo "doesn't play well with others"? No, that can't be the reason either; not if local leaders are to be believed.

Given the City Council's pro-business positions (see above), one would assume the Chamber of Commerce would tend to back the Council's decision -- indeed, that it might even have dictated it. But no. Chamber President Nancy Quellhorst is quoted in Rhatigan's story as saying, "I enjoyed working with him very much, and I'm disappointed to no longer have than opportunity."

Lombardo's counterpart in neighboring Coralville, City Administrator Kelly Hayworth, is quoted as saying, "I thought he was an excellent leader. We worked a lot together . . .."

Johnson County Board of Supervisors Chairman Terrence Neuzil said Lombardo was a "strong leader" and that he was "surprised he was fired." Neuzil said of his trip to Washington with Lombardo, "Where he will be missed is his ability to bring in dollars into the community. He certainly knew the D.C. game very well."

So even by a process of elimination that's why I think the problems may relate back to the Council's failure to do what should be every board, commission, committee or council's "job one" -- understanding, addressing, and articulating its basic governance principles.

What is the role of the council as a body? How does it intend to respond to the temptations to either micro-manage or rubber stamp staff decisions and actions? What does it view as acceptable, and unacceptable, relationships and behavior between and among council members? What self-imposed limits is it prepared to abide by in terms of actions by individual council members, as distinguished from actions taken by the council as a body? What does it believe to be the highest priority measurable goals for the city government, and what are their metrics?

How does the council propose to interact with the city manager? What, and how much, is it expressly delegating to the manager's discretion (and is this a negative grant -- "stop until we say 'go'" (come to us with everything first) -- or an affirmative grant -- "go unless we've said 'stop'" (i.e., articulated prohibitions))? Will it only communicate with the staff through the manager? What does it believe to be the manager's "job description"; what are his or her goals and how are they to be measured (if they are different from the council's institutional goals)?

There's a significant body of literature about board governance. I happen to prefer the John Carver model -- primarily because I've worked with it and know it best. There will always be some who don't like it. Fortunately for them there are many more to choose from. And, as I've itemized above, and "John Barleykorn" put in a comment this morning on last Saturday's blog entry [Nicholas Johnson, "River City's Problem: Council-Manager Governance; The Necessity of Governance Theory and Practice," April 18, 2009], "You don't need to have a specific model, you just need clearly defined roles and expectations."

Governance models, or "expectations," are of necessity the personal responsibility of individual board members (in this case city council members) not the CEO (in this case city manager). Their drafting cannot be delegated to a "consultant" or staff member.

My guess is that the Iowa City City Council -- with this responsibility for Council-City Manager governance models, or defined roles -- provided neither.

There are hundreds of adverse consequences from that failure by any council or board; unfortunate, costly, petulant dismissals of competent CEOs (or city managers) are only among the most serious.

And why does Lombardo think he was terminated? He hasn't a clue -- at least none provided by the Council:
Former city manager Michael Lombardo said the Iowa City Council didn't tell him why they chose to terminate his contract at a closed-door meeting Friday [April 17] afternoon.

"There wasn't any discussion. They have their reasons, and they chose not to share those reasons with me," he said.

The only reason they provided him with was that he was "not a good fit," he said.
And that for someone who came out on top in a rigorous nationwide search, was described by Council members at the time as "a very good fit," and who received, we are told, very positive performance reviews three months, and six months, into his nine-month's of service.

I don't think this story is going to evaporate -- even if it's not on the Press-Citizen's Web site.

8:11 a.m. Full texts of the stories are now available on the Press-Citizen's Web site, Rhatigan's and Morelli's.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson

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