City Council debates year-long contract for City Manager Smith

by Charles Gerian

The Blackwell City Council approved a one-year contract with City Manager Janet Smith after an hour of intense debate between Council members on Thursday night.

After hearing reports from department heads and appointing Steve Marquardt as Blackwell's new Vice-Mayor, the Council voted 3 - 2 to approve a one-year contract with Smith.

Before Thursday's meeting, Smith was on a 30-day contract that would automatically renew every month. Her new contract is effective immediately and will end June 30, 2020, unless authorized by the Council.

Webb was the first council member to speak about the contract. He said that he "had some questions" in regards to the proposed contract, which he had received the night before the meeting via Dropbox, the city's online file-sharing system. He questioned two items: the decision to end the month-to-month contract, and the request to give Smith a pay raise of $13,500.

"We hired you four months ago at $85,000 plus the retirement benefits amounting to $9,000 - $10,000, plus incidentals. ... Whoever wrote this up has $98,500 as a base salary in addition to the $12,000 in a retirement fund," said Webb. "None of these changes benefit the city. They only benefit you."

The existing contract actually stipulates a base salary of $85,000 plus a car allowance of $7500 with no mileage reimbursement for a total of $92,500. The City Manager then received employee benefits for insurance and retirement. The proposed contract salary amount is for $98,500, which is only a $6000 increase, without a car allowance included, and allows for mileage reimbursement. 

Marquardt then countered Webb's argument, saying that Smith has been working without a contract "from the day [the Council] hired her."

"I personally feel that she's worth this. She's already proven to the community as well as our employees that we're moving in the right direction. ... In order to keep my City Manager, I believe this is more than fair," Marquardt said. "I'm voting that we go along with this contract."

Despite Webb's complaints for being presented the contract, May is the last month a city can review contracts for the upcoming fiscal year budget cycle. Under state law, the City of Blackwell must post its annual budget by June 1, and the City Manager's salary is included in that budget. That's why Smith chose to present her contract last week, and it will be next May 2020 before the Council is presented another contract from her.

Smith said her current month-to-month contract would make it "very difficult" for her to purchase a house in Blackwell, saying that no mortgage company would "realistically allow a 30-day renewing contract."

"A 30-day contract does not work if I'm going to purchase a home," she said. The proposed contract if approved would become an annual contract with an increase in pay of $6000. There were other changes in the contract in the areas of severance pay and mileage reimbursement. 

Webb then said that former City Manager Thomas "Chip" Outhier "worked on that basis" and "didn't have any problems or complaints."

Smith replied that Webb's statement was false, and his last contract was proof of her statement. 

No one at the meeting had Outhier's contract immediately available, but it was later obtained by the Blackwell Journal-Tribune. Outhier's own year-long contract was signed on June 21, 2018 and would have lasted until June 30, 2019. Before that, he allegedly operated on the same month-to-month basis as Smith.

Webb said that Smith agreed to a month-to-month contract in January, when she was first hired. Webb claimed that Smith had requested a vehicle allowance and had wanted to use the city's designated administrative vehicle as a personal one.

Smith replied that the vehicle allowance in the original contract was to boost her salary to an acceptable range of pay, and she, unlike her predecessor, makes the official city-owned vehicle "available for other city employees to use as well....but I prefer to drive my own car."

"So, you drive your own vehicle and in addition to that, the city's vehicle," Webb said. "I used to work for a company, and that was not an option that they offered. ... I couldn't do both."

Marquardt informed Webb that there were no stipulations preventing Smith from using both vehicles.

"The issue, is that it isn't an issue," Marquardt said. "We don't have anything in our contracts stating that it's 'this-or-that' as far as vehicles are concerned. They've asked either for a car allowance, or not for one, and we put a figure on that.

"The biggest thing I want to do is to keep my city manager here in Blackwell," Marquardt said.

Under the terms of the new contract, a total of $1,000 will be set aside for membership in local, state, and national organizations, which was up from $500; a total of $1,500 will be set aside for travel expenses; and a total of $750 will be set aside for memberships in local clubs and organizations, which was up from $500. Reimbursements for hosting lunches and dinners for local businesses and other functions were under $100.

Marquardt asked if Smith would agree to drive her own vehicle after her contract is signed. Smith said she only uses the city's car in the event that she needs more room for passengers or cargo. Smith again stated that she makes the city vehicle available to any employees who need it.

"The last city manager didn't do that," she said. "It was entirely considered his vehicle, as I have been informed. It was 'off limits' to employees, and I've more than allowed them to take it when they ask," Smith said.

"The issue isn't you driving the car," Greenfield stated. "The issue is getting paid monthly plus having the vehicle."

City Attorney Bryce Kennedy confirmed that there was "nothing against policy" for Smith to use both vehicles, but he said that there was a "good argument there."

Webb said it was a "shortcoming" on the Council's part to give Smith a vehicle allowance while also allowing her to drive the city's vehicle.

Smith also clarified for Webb that the proposed contract actually did not include a vehicle allowance, but rather allowed for mileage reimbursement. Greenfield said that this statement was correct, but he contested Smith's claim that Outhier kept the car "off limits."

Smith replied that she was happy to hear the information, which was the opposite of what she'd been told. Greenfield said that Smith had been "misinformed."

Greenfield next brought up the severance package in Smith's contract.

"This new contract has a three-month severance plus a year," Greenfield continued. "So if she was terminated in July or August - say August - she would get three months [and] the remaining 12 months, so she would walk away with 14 months of severance pay. There's other items in here that are uncommon, including a change to the performance evaluation stating she will receive a bonus of not less than $2,000, and that formerly had no set amount."

Smith replied that the proposed contract, contrary to Greenfield's claims, was more like the contracts her predecessors". Those contracts show a bonus stipulation upon successful completion of the annual performance reviews. 

"Many residents within the community have asked me numerous times when I'm moving to a real contract. Many don't feel the 30-day contract is 'real', and I agree that it is atypical for a City Manager to operate under anything for less than a year's contract. ... The changes I have made to my contract were present in Mark Skiles' contract and Chip Outhier's. ... My contract is much more in-line with those now than they were before. I'm asking for a $5,000 - $6,000 increase that would still put me at less than the former City Managers here who have been male."

Skiles, who served as manager before Outhier, had a year-long contract beginning in June 2014 and ending in July 2015. His base salary was $92,000 dollars, according to his contract.

"I have a Master's degree," Smith said. "I am more than proving myself to this community. Anyone can walk through this door and get information from me where they weren't able to before. I have facts, figures, experts, and although there are some on this Council that don't appreciate what I'm doing, there are some that do."

Webb attested that he "isn't one of those." Smith replied that she knows.

Brad Bechtel, who was a member of the Council when Outhier was hired, attended the meeting. He said that, during his time on the Council, he would have "never agreed to a 30-day contract." He also asked Greenfield if he would be willing to relocate for such a contract himself.

"[Janet] is the one who applied for it. She liked her original contract that she negotiated with Bryce. Then, in four months, she came in re-writing it with a huge increase," Greenfield said.

Marquardt said a month "isn't enough time" for an administrator to make any significant progress.

Councilman Tom Beliel stated that, since Smith's arrival, he has gotten "more information and help" from the City Manager's office than he had received from past managers.

"I think the community can see how well she's worked with the department heads, and I second the original motion," said Beliel.

Several citizens voiced their opinions before the discussion reverted back to the Council.

Webb said that the year-long contract in and of itself didn't upset him, but that Smith's proposed salary did. He then said it was a shame that "some of the councilmen" weren't as involved during previous administrations. He also said he "never had any problem finding information out" from Outhier.

Webb also mentioned that he felt the city's employment of R. Stephen Haynes as the city's Special Legal Counsel was a "waste" of city finances.

Haynes is currently investigating alleged improper contracts made by city officials.

One woman in the audience asked if Smith had considered changing her severance agreement. Smith said that a severance agreement is designed to force the Council think more about terminating a manager. Smith also added that, if she were to hypothetically be fired for illegal actions, she would "not get a dime of that severance."

"I would not be here if I wasn't dedicated to my job of watching out for this city to make sure it doesn't get taken advantage of again," Smith said. "As we've said, I'm only here asking for you to pay me at least as well as this Council has paid the men who've sat in this position. I feel like that is an issue women in this room can identify with. We have worked hard to get to where we are, and I don't want to receive a salary that's less than my male counterparts in this. It is time for us to be recognized for what we've done. If I didn't think I was bringing my A-game to this, I would resign. ... Piece-by-piece, we are building a better Blackwell. ... I'm not asking for anything different than the men who have come before me, and I think it's interesting we've discussed this for almost an hour."

“I have one question,” Mayor Greenfield said, “you said that you had a Master's Degree and staff asking about safeguards and protecting the City but at our last meeting how did the contract item you put on the agenda that violated State Statute 8-113- the exact reason why we're under state audit- get on the agenda? If it weren't for my comments on that, as the minutes reflect, how many of these councilmen would have voted for it?

Beliel asked if was the item for swimming lessons to be held at Blackwell Memorial Pool, Greenfield replied yes and said that Janet “should have caught that”.

“She let an item, the entire reason we're under audit now, be presented to you guys. If not for me, that would have been approved,” said Greenfield.

Beliel stated he didn't think they were under audit because of the events from the last meeting, to which Greenfield stated the manner of the item- not the item itself- was the exact reason. A violation of State Statute 8-113.

“I recall that contract was for $2 thousand dollars for [Afton] at the swimming pool. You erroneously said it was a conflict of interest, but what you were referring to was nepotism,” Smith spoke to Greenfield who replied telling her that she was incorrect and needed to read Statute 8-113.

“Oh, I understand that,” City Manager Smith acknowledged.

Mayor Greenfield then replied “no, you don't,” and said if she understood it then why would it have been on the agenda. Smith shook her head saying that she wouldn't argue with him.

Finally, the vote was taken and approved with Webb and Mayor Greenfield voting 'No' against Beliel, Marquardt, and Braden. Finally, the vote was taken and passed. Beliel, Braden, and Marquardt voted "Yes," with Greenfield and Webb voting "No."

Following the meeting, both Smith and Greenfield provided statements to the Journal-Tribune.

“There is a record of female staff throughout the City of Blackwell,” Greenfield stated, “I have no idea how this became a discussion about gender when she was the only one that mentioned it. No one has had any indication of a male versus female pay struggle, and the City Manager job is based on merit, credit, and capability not so much by a degree. The other gentlemen had simply been in government longer. The council is elected to protect the citizens and employees, not a single individual trying to better themselves.” Greenfield then concluded that Blackwell citizens should watch the footage of last week's meeting and to draw their own opinions on the matter.

"I was unhappy with the terms of the existing contract, and although the salary was acceptable, it is inappropriate for the city to pay me less than my male counterparts," Smith said. "Although I was confident in the support to approve my contract, I felt it important to make a public statement of the city's policy of non-discrimination in its hiring practices. As the vote showed, we are fortunate to have such outstanding council members dedicated to ensuring equality and fairness in the community." 

As for questions as to why the contract was discussed in 'Regular Session' rather than 'Executive Session', Smith says that she has promised the residents of Blackwell transparency, and this is just one way she is keeping that promise. When a Council goes into executive session, all discussion becomes privileged and the public cannot hear the 'pros and cons' as they are being considered. Also, the contract is considered 'Open Record' so there is no need to discuss the matter in private."

The Council's next meeting will be May 16. At that meeting, the Council will consider other contracts, such as the city's Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the City Attorney. Under state law, these contracts must also be approved for allocation in the budget before the new fiscal year begins.