Last month West Linn City Council voted to fire City Manager Eileen Stein 'without cause'

PMG PHOTO - The West Linn City Council voted 3-2 to terminate the employment of City Manager Eileen Stein last month. While it was shocking to some, to others, the firing of former West Linn City Manager Eileen Stein seemed to be only a matter of time.

It was no secret to those who closely follow the business of the City that the three councilors behind Stein's employment termination, Teri Cummings, Rich Sakelik and Bill Relyea, were, at best, on rocky terms with the city manager. The other two members of the council expressed disappointment at the majority's decision to fire Stein.

Though the council majority has declined to give any reasoning for Stein's firing, citing "respect for her privacy"— Stein's contract stipulated a provision that allowed her employment to be terminated "without cause"— potential motivating factors can be deduced from annual evaluations of her performance.

Last year, Stein's evaluation was a monthslong affair, beginning in May and wrapping up just before Thanksgiving.

While the evaluations took place in multiple executive session meetings, councilors and community members also submitted their own written evaluations, which the Tidings recently obtained through a public records request.

Major themes in Stein's evaluations by Cummings, Sakelik and Relyea were dissatisfaction with a 2018 executive session that resulted in the Oregon Government Ethics Commission finding a violation by three councilors and "unsubstantiated, denigrating remarks about the City Attorney's performance in the June 13, 2019, edition of the Tidings."

Relyea's review of Stein was notably less harsh than Sakelik's or Cummings', and in many parts positive.

The three councilors also faulted Stein for what they characterized as disrespectful comments made by a staff member at a Parks Advisory Board meeting regarding citizens, the planning commission and a city councilor.

"The fact that staff is disrespectful is not surprising in light of the public record of Ms. Stein's own disrespectful remarks about citizens, her fellow City Officer and a Councilor," Cummings wrote in her evaluation of Stein.

Sakelik also wrote that Stein has not served the citizens of West Linn well because of a perception of staff's disrespect for residents and councilors at the Parks Advisory Board meetings. Relyea's evaluation did not mention this incident or any other disrespectful behavior by city staff.

Ethics violation

In his eight-page evaluation, Sakelik wrote, "The most important issue that I believe exemplifies this (deceptive, dishonest, unethical) behavior is the entire episode of the OGEC ethics violation regarding the 10/15/18 Executive session. There is plenty of proof that this violation was deliberate in that Ms. Stein was trying to persuade Council to satisfy her desires regarding City Attorney representation."

The City Council met in executive session Oct. 15, 2018, under ORS 192.660(2)(i) "To review and evaluate the employment-related performance of the chief executive officer of any public body, a public officer, employee or staff member who does not request an open hearing."

In this session, the three councilors present discussed the employment of City Attorney Tim Ramis while he was not present.

Though on council at the time, Sakelik and Cummings were not at the meeting. Relyea and Councilor Jules Walters were not council members at the time.

After a citizen complained about this meeting to the OGEC, the commission found the councilors in violation of executive session laws because "the governing body did not give notice to the executive session to Mr. Ramis in order to provide him an opportunity to request an open hearing."

In his evaluation of Stein, Relyea simply wrote, "An issue with an Executive Session held in 2018 caused an OGEC violation."

Statements in the press

Regarding remarks Stein made about the City's legal services, which were reported in this newspaper, Cummings wrote in Stein's evaluation, "Stein's lack of compassion and disrespect for her fellow City Official is VERY disturbing."

The article Cummings referenced concerned a council discussion in June of the City's legal services, in which Stein expressed concern about the cost and efficiency regarding the city's legal structure with Ramis' firm on contract.

Stein acknowledged the "deep bench" of experiences of lawyers at Jordan Ramis PC, but was quoted as saying, "When you have a city attorney who is also serving other municipal clients and other private clients, that deep bench is also serving a whole lot of others and balancing a whole lot of other priorities and they're making the decision about what is a priority between different clients."

Stein also said in the article that she had never doubted Ramis' ability to handle the legal needs of the City.

In his review, Relyea simply wrote, "Statements made to the press are not supportive or consistent with direction given by counsel."

Sakelik faulted Stein for failing to "clarify the truth of all the misstatements" by a former city councilor in opinions submitted to the Tidings.

Personal preferences

Another issue for the councilors who ousted Stein concerned situations where they believed she was overstepping her authority as city manager to prioritize certain councilors or council issues over others.

"Ms. Stein has publicly advocated in favor of her preferred outcome for legal services over the last two years as if she is a fellow City Councilor, even though it is considered somewhat unethical for a public administrator to take sides on policy and budgetary matters," Cummings wrote.

Yet, according to the International City/County Management Association, the principal role of city managers is in "preparing the budget, directing day-to-day operations, hiring and firing personnel, and serving as the council's chief policy advisor."

This "bias" was also a theme in evaluations of Stein by Sakelik and Cummings in her 2017 review.

Cummings also said Stein's tendency to "court" certain councilors creates a hostile work environment and leaves her and Sakelik in the dark.

Unequal treatment of councilors was also noted by Cummings and Sakelik in the 2017 evaluation of Stein.

Relyea wrote in the more recent evaluation that "The CM (city manager) should take a neutral position on issues and once Council has made a decision, be supportive of the decision."

Sakelik noted several times where he felt Stein did not adequately follow council's direction or else did not do so quickly enough.

"She often doesn't appear to work on bringing back information Council requests," he wrote.

The good news

As for Stein's strengths, Cummings listed her ability to network with regional partners and her support of diversity and equity efforts. Sakelik's list of strengths for Stein was similar, though he added that she also makes herself available to councilors outside of business hours.

Relyea commended Stein for her ability to "listen to what Council members say and gauges their perspectives," as well as "adapting to change as newly elected officials took office."

He also wrote, she "administers her position in an ethical manner and the departments she leads have garnered national recognition."

Walters' review of Stein was laden with praise. Walters gave the city manager an "outstanding" overall rating — compared to "needs improvement" from Sakelik and Cummings, "meets expectations" from Relyea and "Exceeds expectations" from Axelrod.

Walters' "areas for improvement" for Stein were to voice her frustrations and feel comfortable asserting her responsibility in the council-manager form of government. Walters also wrote "Ms. Stein is doing a fantastic job and we are lucky to have her," in this section.

Axelrod's evaluation of Stein was more moderate. He praised her confidence and composure in her work and her compassion for others.

He also noted her ability to improve on objectives identified by council. Though he also cited several areas for improvement like communication and collaboration with staff and said that he sometimes hears complaints from citizens about Stein not responding.

In his most recent evaluation of Stein, Axelrod expressed concern about Sakelik and Cummings' persistent criticism of Stein.

"Sometimes differences in opinion and/or approach by the CM are viewed by these Councilors, and citizens, as evidence that the CM is either incompetent and/or does not care about West Linn or their issues," he wrote. "This conduct, in my opinion, reflects political vindictiveness that creates an unhealthy and dysfunctional working environment for everyone."

The citizen-submitted performance reviews in 2019 generally followed a party line, with supporters of the council majority critical of Stein for a perceived lack of respect and responsiveness and others praising her professionalism.

Past, present and future

These evaluations were submitted in June, six months before Relyea, Cummings and Sakelik told Stein and the rest of the council of their plans to oust her, but still they shed some light on potential motivating factors for the "no cause" termination.

Whether the councilors had been thinking about ending Stein's employment at the time they wrote the evaluations is not known but, in the section of the evaluation asking councilors to list performance objectives for the city manager for the next assessment, Cummings wrote none.

"Ms. Stein has tried to improve collaboration with me to start one-on-ones again and I have not agreed to that since I did not find them to be productive in general," Sakelik wrote in his evaluation. "On the contrary, my lack of trust with Ms. Stein is the main reason to NOT have general one-on-ones."

The 2019 evaluations provide a look at how councilors' opinions of Stein have changed since the beginning of her time in West Linn.

Stein's 2017 evaluations by the council reveal that in the first year of her employment in West Linn, councilors' opinions, including Sakelik and Cummings, were a mixed bag.

They identified several areas of improvement, but they also held optimism about what Stein could do for the City.

"West Linn is very fortunate to have a City Manager with such a strong sense of understanding for the legislative process and good connections at various levels, " Cummings wrote in her 2017 evaluation. "I have enjoyed working with Ms. Stein to promote West Linn's interests. We have certainly made a lot of progress thanks to her expertise."

"Eileen generally does correct mistakes and takes ownership when they occur," wrote Sakelik.

Not all of their comments were so positive, however. Some of the concerns expressed in Stein's most recent evaluation appear to have been issues since the beginning.

"I like Eileen's personality and it lends itself to being very likeable but as a City Manager of approximately 130 employees she needs to show firm guidance and not worry so much about staff's perspective of her," Sakelik's 2017 evaluation reads. "She doesn't work for the staff...she works for the Council and she needs to clearly show staff who is in charge."

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