Citizens and three councilors express confidence in deputy city manager, propose contract for next six months

PMG FILE PHOTO - John Williams is West Linn's community development director and deputy city manager, currently serving as city manager. At a work session Thursday, Jan. 23 the West Linn City Council decided to allow Deputy City Manager John Williams to continue as interim city manager for the next six months, while the human resources department conducts a limited search for other applicants interested in the permanent position.

This decision, suggested by Councilor Bill Relyea, served as a middle ground between two camps of councilors who wanted starkly different approaches to replacing City Manager Eileen Stein, whose contract was terminated on a 3-2 vote earlier this month.

Mayor Russ Axelrod, Councilor Jules Walters, and a half dozen citizens who gave comment on the matter, advocated for Williams to take the position on a long-term basis, citing his good relationships with the West Linn community and the City's regional partners, his knowledge of the City's current projects and issues, as well as time and money saved by not having to conduct a search for Stein's replacement.

The other camp, Council President Cummings and Councilor Rich Sakelik, who, along with Relyea, voted to terminate Stein's contract, suggested finding an interim city manager to lead the City while council conducted a search for a permanent city manager with the help of a recruitment firm. When Stein was hired in 2017, the City Council approved $27,000 for the services of a recruitment firm.

Sakelik said Williams has done a good job leading the City since Stein left, and he could continue to do so until another interim city manager was found.

Cummings stated the councilors owed it to themselves to find applicants with different perspectives who could help foster a new culture.

When Walters asked what Cummings meant by "new culture," she responded, "I think you're well aware of what the problems are. It's just that it's a confidential matter."

Sakelik and Cummings were frequent critics of Stein's management and campaigned for their city council seats by critiquing staff for not listening to citizens. Cummings was also a frequent critic of Stein's predecessor, Chris Jordan.

Sakelik suggested that the city manager might not even need city management experience.

Cummings also said that it was unwise for Williams to manage the City in the interim while he is also in the running for the permanent position. Cummings had expressed this concern at a previous meeting and was told by Ed Trompke, an associate of the City Attorney, that cities frequently find themselves in the same situation and are able to get through it with no conflict of interest for the interim city manager. As the city manager is hired by the council, Williams would not be involved in the hiring process other than as an applicant, Trompke explained.

Human Resources Director Elissa Preston said that the HR department could be responsible for the recruitment process without involving Williams.

When Cummings and Sakelik expressed concern about the business of the City falling behind while Williams tried to juggle his former position and the interim city manager role, Williams offered that he and the staff were managing the work well and, if necessary, he could backfill some of his former duties.

Axelrod maintained his confidence in Williams, saying that he ranks above all the best city managers he knows around the region.

"Everything I've heard in the community so far has been supportive of promoting internally," the mayor continued. "I think promoting internally is another very good message to our staff that we recognize and honor their demonstrated work and their commitment to the city and what they've done."

Preston and City Attorney Tim Ramis will present the council with a new contract for Williams at its next business meeting, Monday, Feb. 10.

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