Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - Questions about Lombardo before city can move on

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," April 22, 2009)

Back in August 2004, the Iowa City Airport Commission fired then airport manager Ron O'Neil and publicly said it was because of work performance issues rather than because of budget concerns. In February 2005, O'Neil filed suit against members of the commission as well as Iowa City government on the grounds of:

• Defamation,

• Slander,

• First Amendment retaliation,

• Violating Iowa's whistle-blowing law and

• Violating Iowa's blacklisting law.

In December 2007, the case went to trial. The defamation and slander claims were not submitted to jury but were thrown out by the judge at the conclusion of all evidence. And the jury decided O'Neil had not proven any of the other claims.

By that time, however, city government had spent a lot of money and a lot of staff hours proving the decision to fire O'Neil wasn't a wrongful termination.

So it's understandable that Iowa City officials don't want to risk going through that process again with the Iowa City Council's decision to fire Michael Lombardo on Friday. That explains why they've been tight-lipped about the decision and have offered little explanation for the firing other than, "He just wasn't a good fit."

The councilors are also in a tight spot because -- if they were right to fire Lombardo and to fire him as quickly as they did -- then they were obviously wrong to hire him in the first place. (And they were especially wrong to include an $80,000 severance package in his contract.)

Because the city councilors can't figure out how to perform this difficult task because responding to public's concerns and respecting Lombardo's privacy seem two mutually exclusive concepts to them the public has taken to offering its own wild speculation about the factors behind the council's decision.

The on-the-record factors we know of include:

• Lombardo publicly blaming his staff and not taking any personal responsibility for the failed efforts to move the Iowa City Farmers Market once a month (what Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson has called "Zucchini-gate") and

• The bizarre, meeting-long exchange in the April 13 council budget priorities setting session in which the council asked Lombardo to give them recommendations for budget cuts, and he seemed to fail to grasp why he should do that. (Video of that meeting is available at

But council's 7-0 decision Friday must have included many more (and more major) reasons for the firing. After all, this is a council that doesn't vote unanimously on any issue if it has even a hint of controversy.

On Monday, the Press-Citizen put in a records request asking for all e-mail exchanges between Lombardo and members of the council in the past few months. We also asked for any e-mails between councilors in which they mention Lombardo. The city has 10 days from then to respond to the request, and we will report anything that helps shed light on Lombardo's firing -- whether in terms of procedure or cause.

City isn't rudderless

During this time of confusion, Iowa City is lucky to have an experienced acting manager at the helm of city government. On Friday, Dale Helling began his third stint in that interim position. He performed the job well before Steve Atkins came on in the 1980s, he performed the job well after Atkins left two years ago and we're sure he'll perform the job well until the next city manager comes on board. (In fact, we're left wishing the council would've made his interim position permanent the last time around.)

Because the council had to pay Lombardo a severance package worth six-months of his salary, it seems unlikely the city's budget-cutting government could really begin searching for a replacement until at least October. And since that would put us just weeks before three council seats are up for election in November, the search probably shouldn't begin in earnest until January, after as many as three new councilors are sworn in.

So it's a good thing Helling knows the job, because his next interim period might be as long as Lombardo's entire tenure.

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