Wednesday, August 01, 2007

No logical reason for Bain to be out of city manager discussions

Much has been written and even more said about the city manager’s performance, recent and future closed door meetings to discuss councilors’ feelings about his performance – especially in light of recent activities at City Hall – and the decision made this past Monday that Councilor Bryan Bain should not participate in discussions about the possible termination of Mr. Wollangk or any future vote on same. That decision came after independent counsel from Green Bay advised councilors that Bain should probably not participate in the process because of public comments he’d made that he believed we needed someone different running the city. That counsel maintains that because of those comments Bain cannot be impartial in this process.

While some in this community believe Bain has put his foot in his mouth and somehow done something wrong, I feel like many others – that he’s done nothing wrong and should insert himself back into the discussions and possible future vote.

Bain has had two-plus years working with Richard Wollangk. He and other council members have told Wollangk they expect to be notified of events in the city as they occur so they are not blindsided or appear out of the loop when approached by citizens or the media. I believe he was impartial, and maybe even liked the job Richard Wollangk was doing when he first began serving on the Common Council. That does not mean his opinion can’t change over time, nor does it mean he can’t be free to express it.

I don’t think there’s a person out there who honestly believes the rest of the council members don’t have some very strong opinions about Mr. Wollangk’s performance – in fact they better or I don’t think they’re in a position to be serving the citizenry. And obviously they must have some opinions, or at the very least some displeasure, or Councilor Dennis McHugh would not have asked for the closed session meeting to discuss Wollangk’s performance to begin with. Does that mean he, too, should be removed from the process? Other councilors have said during their time of service and/or when running for office that there needs to be more leadership and greater accountability by Wollangk and his staff. Should they also be removed from the process? The obvious answer to both those questions is “no;” so why should Bain?

Like most employees in the state of Wisconsin, Mr. Wollangk’s employment is at-will. He serves at the pleasure of the Common Council and at such time as his performance no longer “pleases” them, they have the right to terminate him. Just because Bain had the courage to say it out loud and to Mr. Wollangk’s face earlier this year should not be a reason for him to be removed from the process – either by his own choosing or anyone else’s.

Granted the contract with Wollangk calls for a severance package of six months pay if terminated, but it’s a matter of opinion as to which is more costly: Leaving him on the job for another six months or paying him his severance and finding an interim.

Some people are saying Bain’s comments would be fodder for a lawsuit from Wollangk. A lawsuit based on what?! Again, the city manager serves at the pleasure of the council and can be terminated anytime, keeping in mind, again, the six months severance clause. It seems to me that the only way successful litigation could be brought about by Wollangk against the city is if he is terminated for cause and the severance not be paid. Depending on the strength of his case he might win his severance, but he surely can’t force a judge to keep him on the job if the Common Council doesn’t want him.

At such time as Mr. Wollangk is told his employment may be terminated, he is entitled to a hearing. But by then each and every council member will have had their minds made up, if they don’t already. In fact, by the time they would give Mr. Wollangk notice of their intended action each and every one of them would already have had to state their position. Does that then render them all incapable of being impartial to the point where they should be removed from the hearing and firing process? By the time things reach the point they have in this administration, would any employer be completely open-minded and impartial. The simple answer is “no” and how could they be?

Bottom line: Every one of these council members has previously stated in one venue or another how they feel about things that have been going on in City Hall. They all know in their hearts how they feel about the city manager’s performance. And each council member is entitled to his or her own opinions on Mr. Wollangk’s performance and to make a determination individually and collectively whether he stays or goes. Bain is one of those elected representative and is entitled to participate in that process. Perhaps it’s time for Councilor Bain to get his own counsel. In the words of city attorney Warren Kraft, “This is just one attorney’s opinion.” For what it’s worth, there are plenty of us in Oshkosh and beyond who believe this attorney’s advice is wrong.

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