Update March 2, 2020: Since publishing this post on Feb 20th, I wrote the following additional explanation in my Feb 29th City Council Newsletter:
There continues to be some confusion around the concept of “without cause” and why the City would opt to end a contract this way, triggering payment of severance. According the City Administrator’s employment contract, any separation “with cause” requires very specific and serious misconduct (e.g. fraud, felony, sexual misconduct), none of which has occurred. As Howard Lazarus told WEMU on February 20, 2020:
“Council has the absolute right under the charter by vote of the majority of council to replace the City Administrator. Council has the right to have leadership that they feel comfortable and confident in. When they feel that they have to make that change it doesn’t have to be for anything that caused it other than they would feel that they need to make a change. That’s what the discussion was and I respect their right to do that.”
“Council has the right to make a change in leadership. People who are in City and County management know that that’s part of the business. The average tenure for a city manager is three to five years and I’m about at four… it’s kind of the nature of the business.”
My original post from Feb 20, 2020 appears below:
Since the Feb 18, 2020 City Council meeting, I have received a lot of email from residents who are dismayed by the lack of information available to them regarding the recent separation agreement with our city administrator, Howard Lazarus. Below, I would like to offer all the information I am legally permitted to reveal.
By charter, City Council has a special relationship with only two city employees: the city administrator and the city attorney. The city administrator oversees all city employees, everyone who would work to implement the City priorities and policies approved by Council. Our city attorney leads a staff that oversees all legal matters, defending city interests in court and advising Council about the legality of policy and process.
The relationship between Council and the City Administrator is especially important because of the degree to which we collaborate and work together. Residents alert us to problems and they are looking for solutions. Our ability to respond depends very much on a constructive and supportive relationship with both our City Administrator and City Attorney. It is the crux of everything.
The City Administrator and the City Attorney are not elected positions, their employment is approved by Council. These two positions do not have contracts that “run out”— work contracts are reviewed and renewed with every annual budget. Their employment with the city can end in one of only three ways: resignation, termination for cause, or termination without cause. Since coming to Ann Arbor in 2016, Mr. Lazarus interviewed for two jobs outside of Ann Arbor (2017 and 2019). Presumably, if he had accepted either of those positions, he would have resigned.
This month, members of Council had prepared and submitted performance reviews for Mr. Lazarus. Over the last several weeks, Mr. Lazarus met with various Council Members and the Council Administrative Committee (members: Mayor Taylor, CM Eaton, CM Grand, CM Griswold, CM Lumm) to discuss a separation from Ann Arbor “without cause,” which triggers payment of severance. The separation agreement was negotiated between our city attorney and Mr. Lazarus’ personal attorney; it remained confidential until the terms were settled. The agreement includes a “non-disparagement” clause, which applies to City Council regarding Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Lazarus regarding City Council.
QUESTIONS / CONCERNS
I have heard from some residents, concerned that this issue came up as an underhanded “surprise”, with sneaky last minute timing that deprived the public of their opportunity to weigh in. I understand that concern. Ann Arbor regularly engages the public with informative meetings to assess and survey opinion on all matter of questions about city plans and projects. From what I understand, many individual interactions between residents and the city administrator have been positive. I would expect this to be the case. However, the experience of residents is not the same as the ongoing professional relationship the administrator has with Council and staff.
I strongly support the idea that the public should have the opportunity to voice concerns about issues that impact them. I regularly hear from people who want it known that they support or oppose various items on our agenda. On almost every issue that comes before Council, the public has access to enough information to offer meaningful perspective. I include Legistar links in my newsletter precisely because I believe this, deeply. This is the rare exception. There is no Legistar link to interactions that occur and professional relationships developed over the course of weeks and months.
The work of our City Administrator is reviewed annually by both city staff and City Council. It is understood that both Council and Staff have important and distinct perspectives relevant to judging the job performance of our city administrator. The functioning of our democracy depends on a healthy partnership between elected City Council and the City Administrator. Likewise, the heads of our city departments have an opportunity to offer their own assessments of the city administrator as a supervisor. The functioning of our city operations depends on a healthy partnership between our City Administrator and his staff.
Residents have asked me if this agreement could be brought back for re-consideration. On Wednesday morning, I was told that the agreement had already been signed by Mr Lazarus and this was not possible.
I learned a lot working with Mr. Lazarus for over a year. I have seen some of the positive working relationships he cultivated at City Hall, I don’t dispute them. I like Mr. Lazarus, he’s a fine person. I’m glad to have known him for the past fifteen months. He’s a professional with strong convictions that are informed by his own work experience in Newark and Austin. I am free to pay Mr. Lazarus any and every compliment, but legally I am not allowed to explain why I decided he should no longer be our City Administrator. That legal circumstance has been exploited by people who should (and do) know better.
People often ask me why I ran for City Council. This week reminds me of the answer I offered in 2018:
I entered this race because I saw a debate on City Council where the words “simple” and “obvious” were repeated over and over again. Discussion was intentionally framed as narrowly as possible, to ignore history and context. Over the course of weeks, I heard a complex legal issue over-simplified again and again in our public meetings.
I specifically decided to run because of a conversation I had with a then-sitting Council Member. I expressed concern about the misleading, oversimplification of an issue in a Council discussion. I asked him specific questions. He professed complete ignorance in a way that seemed sincere. I accepted his explanation of “I don’t really know.” That’s the exact moment when I decided to run for City Council.
This week is deja vu.
NOTHING WRONG / WITHOUT CAUSE / PUT SIMPLY / NOTHING MORE
Within hours of the conclusion of our City Council meeting Tuesday night, members of Council and the Mayor had released lengthy statements on this topic. My colleagues, CM Smith, CM Grand, and CM Ackerman made these public statements:
On February 18, after a series of clandestine meetings to generate seven votes from City Council, our colleagues Jack Eaton, Jane Lumm, Elizabeth Nelson, Jeff Hayner, Anne Bannister, Kathy Griswold, and Ali Ramlawi voted to terminate the employment of Mr. Lazarus without cause…
Put simply, the City Council majority didn’t like Mr. Lazarus.
Removing a City Administrator without cause is nothing more than political retribution that we would expect to see while studying a corrupt Tammany Hall style government from the last century.
So instead of working harder and more collaboratively to try and achieve their policy goals, they decided to terminate Mr. Lazarus without cause, which will certainly not accomplish any of their goals
Removing the City Administrator without cause, throwing away his skills when they are needed most, and using your money to pay him to leave is offensive to our most fundamental values
Taking these words at face value, the most generous assumption I can make is that my colleagues do not understand the legal meaning of the term “without cause” when they conflate its meaning with “for no good reason.”
Among other public remarks, Mayor Taylor has offered this statement:
Against my strong objection, the City Council majority has removed City Administrator Howard Lazarus. The action will waste more than $275,000 of taxpayer money and, as Council majority admits, is entirely without cause. Mr. Lazarus has done nothing wrong
The Council Majority has used its power and squandered $275,000 as part of a proxy war – “He listens to the Mayor and not to us”. Nothing more.
Tonight, the Council majority has wasted $275,000. Without cause, they have forced out a leader of skill, character, and integrity and reduced the ability of our amazing staff members to provide the basic services upon which we all rely and envision the quality of life improvements that express our best aspirations.
The Mayor is an attorney. He has an impressive academic resume as a law student. There is no room for our Mayor, specifically, to posture ignorance about the legal meaning of “without cause.” He knows very well that the legal terms of our separation are not even remotely the same as “Council majority admits, is entirely without cause.” He and my colleagues clearly understand the meaning of “non-disparagement.” They see a very special opportunity to invent reasons, spin conspiracy, and project bad intent onto a majority of elected members of Council; we are legally prevented from offering substantive explanation or rebuttal.
In 2018, I listened to a Council Member profess ignorance about Council mis-statements and mischaracterizations related to law. I saw it then as a bug in the system, a problem rooted in genuine ignorance. I see now that for some of my colleagues on Council: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
My colleagues are well aware of conversations and concerns expressed directly and appropriately in the context of committee meetings; they now characterize these as “intimidation” and “threats” and “clandestine scheming.” They describe happenings “in conference rooms and private offices,” and claim to “blow the whistle” on a grand conspiracy.
I have had many productive conversations with Mr. Lazarus at City Hall and outside of City Hall, both privately and in the presence of others. Only myself and Mr. Lazarus fully understand the detail and nature of our professional relationship because only we experienced it. Yet, three of my colleagues profess extensive knowledge of my own as well six other individual professional relationships with Mr. Lazarus. This is implausible and absurd.
The fact that the separation agreement was a split vote— and that four members of Council have now indulged in wild, unfounded accusations and general insults— highlights a problem, for sure. My colleagues have very much “blown the whistle,” but not in the way that they think. Their eagerness to profess direct knowledge about seven private individual relationships with our city administrator is preposterous— if true, there has been a violation of the negotiated non-disparagement clause. I would urge my colleagues to read the separation agreement carefully if they do not understand what it means.
I knew what I was walking into when I voted on this issue. I knew that misinformation and misguided speculation would be widely disseminated on social media. I knew that misunderstanding would be explicitly stated and actively spread. I expected that all of this would be quietly encouraged by my colleagues. I knew that generalized insults would be hurled at me, that my colleagues would passively and gleefully watch it happen, knowing that I was legally prevented from offering explanation.
One thing that did surprise me: the degree to which my colleagues would actively participate in the political storm.
Among my colleagues’ remarks:
The decision to terminate Mr. Lazarus’ contract confirms a pattern of inept leadership
In the 15 months this dysfunctional group has been in the majority, they have been unable to move any legislation changing city policies.
This is especially interesting to me. In compiling my voting charts about our Council meetings, and trying to summarize issues concisely, I have often wondered if/how a complex issue is likely to be twisted for political purposes. I ask myself this question because, despite all readily-available evidence to the contrary, I still see bizarre generalizations about how Council Members “always” vote on particular topics. I see now that, for some, there’s no need to twist or distort factual history— it’s possible to simply pretend that none of it even happened.