Council, McNeal meet to quell rumors

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Within hours after the election of Joe McNeal last week rumors began flying as to who would be fired in city government and who would take their place.

By the end of the week the rumors had become so pervasive that a special meeting of the city council, originally called to simply brief McNeal on city projects, instead became a session devoted almost entirely to trying to throw water on the flames.

The fact that the new mayor's power was limited to only replacing department heads, and his new appointments would have to be approved by the city council, had little bearing on the rumors.

It had been nearly 20 years since there had been any significant shake-up at city hall. Former Mayor Don Etter had made several changes in department heads when he took office. When he retired after 16 years and was replaced by Dave Jett, Jett had retained all of Etter's department heads and appointed only new department leaders to fill vacancies Etter had left for him.

One rumor even had Jett cleaning out his desk and resigning. Jett did clean out his desk, but did not resign. Having taken almost no vacation time during his four years in office, he was electing to use up some of his accumulated leave between now and Jan. 12, when McNeal will be sworn in.

McNeal's announcement that he had established a transition team to review existing department heads and take applications for the jobs, set off a wave of concern that McNeal, the city council, and even Jett were forced to deal with.

So Saturday's meeting was less of a briefing than rumor control.

City hall was filled to capacity, mostly with concerned city employees and members of the volunteer fire department.

"We've tried to keep everything calm, but it's been difficult," said Councilman Tom Rist, who had called the meeting.

"There will be changes," McNeal said, "but they won't be drastic," he told the citizens assembled at the meeting.

"I want people who will do the people's business. No one should feel threatened" if they were rank and file city employees.

Concerning the department heads, who are all politcal appointees that serve at the pleasure of the mayor, McNeal said that seeking applications for the jobs was part of his campaign promise of open city government. But, he said, "that doesn't exclude" the people already in place.

"The department heads are the mayor's backbone. I need to be able to trust them. That's why they're appointments and there is a check and balance system in place."

At the same time, he pointed out, "I am not the mayor. Dave Jett is still the mayor.... No one has been replaced. I don't have that authority," until after he takes office on Jan. 12.

"I have to work real close with the council and all appointments. There is a process in place. We are going through a process, to find the best qualified people to do the people's business," indicating many of them already were in place as existing department heads.

The council members offered their support to help McNeal. Mark Russell pointed out to the audience that according to Idaho Code, any appointments McNeal would make would require the consent of the council. If the council were to reject an appointment, McNeal would have ten days to submit a new name. If he did not, the council could make an appointment.

Russell also noted that under longstanding procedures used by the city, each department head technically served only one-year terms, coming up for reappointment each year.

"The mayor-elect has said that he will work with the council," Russell said. "The mayor nominates, the council approves."

"The reality of the situation is, the mayor has the right to have people (as department heads) that he can work with," Rist said. "I remember when Don Etter took over. There was a person that didn't want to work with him, that was disruptive." If those conditions applied today, he said, "I'd hope the council would step up and support the mayor.

"But by the same token, if somebody that he might appoint, in our opinion, was not in the best interest of the city, then there could be problems.

"We want to make this as seamless a transition as possible. The public has spoken. Joe will be mayor Jan. 12. We need to get rid of this insidious rumor mill and get on with city business."

McNeal agreed, noting, "I don't want a big battle. That's why the transition team is in place. If you hear a rumor that concerns you, come and ask me," he told those in the meeting. My door is open, my telephone number is published."

Russell noted that historically a review of department heads was normal. "It's gone on in every case. This was just more publicized. Joe wanted a more open government and that's why these rumors have been flying. People aren't used to it. But it's a normal process and our job is to aid in the process. The final decisions will be made in open session."

Under questioning from the audience, and in consultation with the council, McNeal said he would submit the names of his nominees to the council by its Dec. 22 meeting, in order to give the council time to review them, and if necessary, interview the candidates as well. McNeal stressed that no matter who his transition team recommended (by Dec. 20), he would have the final say in what names he sent to the council.

Addressing the concerns raised by some city employees at the meeting, McNeal admitted that "change is threatening. I'm trying to put together the best team I know how, that I can trust to the the city's business. I think common sense says if you have a new mayor, some people will change. That's politics."

He said the concerns about who the new department head was legitimate, "but you're assuming everybody is going to be changed, that's not right," he said, indicating it was likely many of the department heads could be retained.

Police Chief Tom Berry told the crowd and council that "I'm not threatened by the process. I think I do a good job. I've told my department they need to take care of the city and not worry about me. I have confidence in hte council. Let's go on with the process and see what shakes out."

With McNeal and the council working to allay some, although not all, of the concerns raised at the meeting, the discussion moved on to establishing a timetable for a series of work sessions with the council and McNeal to bring the new mayor fully up to speed on some of the ongoing city projects and problems.

"I look forward to the chance to be brought up to date," McNeal told the council, "and finding out what I can do to assist. I look forward to a great working relationship with the council."

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