The top employee for the City of Sturgeon Bay remained in limbo after a July 17 Common Council meeting.
City Administrator Josh VanLieshout’s job has been in question since two council members requested that the Personnel Committee review his employment and the chair of that committee, David Ward, chose to make that request public.
In June, Alderwomen Kelly Avenson and Kelly Catarozoli submitted a request to the Personnel Committee to review the city administrator’s position. “We believe it is in the best interests of the city to move forward in a new direction with a new city administrator.” The form did not say why the request was made.
Catarozoli said she expected the request would not be made public, but would be discussed in closed session. However, committee chair David Ward posted it as a regular agenda item and included the request in the agenda packet.
Ward said posting that information publicly was not out of the ordinary, but several other municipal government professionals reached by the Pulse said it was highly unusual to air such discussions publicly.
At that June meeting the personnel committee did not make a recommendation regarding VanLieshout’s employment, but it did recommend that the city develop a process for instituting annual reviews for the city administrator and department heads. Ward said it is his understanding that the city has not performed such reviews for the last 10 years. VanLieshout confirmed that he has not had a formal review since taking the job in 2015.
While Ward said that it’s not unusual for a city the size of Sturgeon Bay to forego such reviews, administrators of similar sized communities throughout the region described that practice as extremely surprising.
Steven Kubacki, administrator for the Village of Suamico, located outside Green Bay with a population of 12,588, said all department heads receive an annual review that coincides with salary increases. As administrator, he said he has received six reviews in his seven years in the position.
“I’ve also been in Germantown and Ashwaubenon, and annual reviews are a pretty standard practice,” he said.
Diane Wessel is in just her third week as the administrator for the Village of Bellevue, but said there is a long-established process for reviews in the village of 15,524 people.
“All management are reviewed annually at budget time,” she said, adding that this was also the case in her previous job in Hortonville. Bellevue has 41 full and part-time city employees. Sturgeon Bay has 72, according to Ward.
The city administrator position was placed on the agenda of the July 17 meeting of the common council. At that meeting Catarozoli asked the mayor to remove the agenda item and move it to a future agenda as a closed session item.
Mayor Thad Birmingham argued for the issue to be discussed in open session.
“I’ve spoken at length with VanLieshout about it,” he said. “The public has a right to hear what the issue is. We need to be open here. What’s the issue, what did he do?”
Catarozoli said that discussing employee performance in open session was disrespectful to VanLieshout, and also opened the council to possible legal challenges. She said that with other employees the city has always moved into closed session.
“I know you did this deliberately,” she said to Birmingham, who replied “I did, yeah.”
Earlier in July, Catarozoli was not as concerned about the public nature of the conversation when she told DoorCountyDailyNews.com that she intended to introduce a motion to terminate VanLieshout’s employment at the next meeting.
The council approved a motion by Laurel Hauser to remove the item from the agenda. Only Ward objected. In the ensuing public comment session, seven people spoke in support of VanLieshout, while three spoke in favor of his removal.
Lauren Daoust said she welcomed the new leadership that took control of the council in April touting a “spirit of cooperation,” but was dismayed by the move to oust VanLieshout.
“I urge you to do the hard work of collaboration and address differences in a mature and patient manner,” she said. “ It’s what you told us you would do.”
County Administrator Ken Pabich and City Engineer Chad Shefchik were among those who expressed support for VanLieshout. Hans Christian supported removing VanLieshout based on his experience working on a proposed Center For The Arts on the city’s west waterfront.
“I have proof that you were undermining our efforts,” Christian said to VanLieshout.
In the portion of the meeting reserved for mayoral comments, Birmingham praised VanLieshout’s work with an undermanned staff and said he was not aware of any issues with him until the complaint made to the personnel committee in June.
“This staff is under extreme pressure,” he said. “They’re overworked and understaffed, and as a result, have to prioritize the work in front of them. As a result some things might not get done that quick. In my opinion, Mr. VanLieshout has performed admirably. Josh I’m proud of you, I’m proud of how you’ve handled this.”
Birmingham said he received a list of complaints from Hauser recently and will look into the claims made by Christian. The mayor did not respond to requests for further comment about the city’s employee review process.
In other council action, the city accepted a donation from Nancy Aten to spread grass seed on the dirt spread at the west waterfront. The dirt had been mounded in piles on the property for three years but was spread on the property July 19.
The city also approved the purchase of a new leaf vacuum for $49,995, and VanLieshout provided an update on the city’s search for new legal representation. Pinkert Law Firm ended its agreement to serve as the city’s legal counsel in June. The city is represented by three different attorneys in three ongoing lawsuits involving the Friends of Sturgeon Bay Waterfront, Stone Harbor Resort, and developer Bob Papke. In addition, Jon Pinkert represents the city in municipal prosecutions and James Kalny for general issues.
VanLieshout said he has not sent out a formal RFP for attorneys. “I would be disingenuous given the council’s inclination to change city administrators,” he said.