After city council voted seven-four to terminate the contract of city administrator Howard Lazarus in February, former councilmember Sally Hart Petersen excoriated the members who orchestrated the ouster:
“The decision to terminate our city administrator without cause undermines the long-term integrity and stability of the administrator’s role,” she said angrily. “It undermines morale of city employees, it is fiscally irresponsible, and it is an insult to all city residents who rely on our administrator’s leadership authority and keen decision-making.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor and his council allies voted against the firing, which triggered a $275,000 severance package. Taylor, Zach Ackerman, and Chip Smith say they got dozens of emails supporting their position. “The quintessential email is, ‘Hey, I’ve lived here for fifty years. I’ve never ever contacted my counsel person. I’m really disappointed in this decision,'” says Smith.
Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, who voted for the termination, says he also got “about two dozen” emails from constituents–though he says the people he heard from were more upset about the severance pay and “the lack of transparency.”
Ramlawi, Kathy Griswold, Jeff Hayner, and Elizabeth Nelson were elected in 2018 to seats previously held by members of what the Observer calls the “Activist Coalition,” led by Taylor and his predecessor, John Hieftje. They joined veterans Anne Bannister, Jack Eaton, and Jane Lumm to flip control of council to what we call the “Back to Basics Caucus.”
Ramlawi notes that the separation agreement requires confidentiality as well as mutual non-disparagement. Because the administrator serves at the pleasure of council, he adds, the reasons “don’t matter.” But in a February Ann Arbor News article, he described it as a response to Taylor’s “ruling by veto.”
The new majority can pass legislation with seven votes–but lack the eighth needed to override a mayoral veto. Last year, Taylor blocked their attempts to redirect money from a county millage, and to hold a public vote on switching to nonpartisan city elections.
Council voted unanimously to hire Lazarus in 2016. But the Back to Basics group soon soured: when council voted on a proposed raise and bonus in 2018, Eaton, Lumm, and Sumi Kailasapathy opposed both. Last year, after the new majority took power, attorney and political operative Tom Wieder emailed Eaton about “working to get our 5th and 6th votes” to block another raise or bonus. Griswold joined Bannister, Eaton, and Lumm in voting against both. However, Ramlawi and Nelson gave the administrator a partial endorsement, supporting the bonus but not the raise.
“So much for firing Lazarus, or for the 2018 elections making any significant difference in how the city is run,” Wieder emailed Bannister and six others whose names were redacted shortly afterward. (The emails were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Luis Vazquez). Lumm replied that Lazarus “continues to inappropriately overstep his authority and demonstrate his disregard for council’s authority … to SET policy.”
In an email to a constituent, Lumm attributed the termination to a “change in policy direction on council after the 2018 election.” Lazarus agrees council changed with a new majority–but says that he “complied with every resolution that council as a whole has adopted.”
The termination agreement included a mutual “non-disparagement” clause, and the former administrator observes it scrupulously. But Taylor contends that Lazarus “was terminated because of his refusal to submit to backroom pressure. It was an exercise in dominance, and he would not be dominated.”
“The core issue is chain of command,” Taylor asserts with uncharacteristic intensity. “And they violated it. They talked to staff, and they demanded that he break the chain of command. They wanted him to do what they wanted to do without being able to pass a resolution to that effect.
“Howard is a military man [who] honors chain of command. Chain of command requires that staff report to the city administrator–not to city council as a whole or particular city councilmembers trying to influence the actions of staff members.”
Nelson declined to be interviewed about the termination. Ramlawi says what changed his mind was Lazarus applying for a job in Florida as Gainesville’s city administrator last summer.
In a surfeit of transparency, Gainesville posted Lazarus’s application online–including his explanation for seeking work elsewhere. “The new members [of council] seek to chart new directions, often leading to conflict and terse public deliberations,” he wrote. “The new majority also has expressed a different definition of the role of the City Administrator. The current climate has placed me in a difficult and vulnerable position.”
The firing proved just how vulnerable the administrator was. Lazarus says he learned it was in motion only a week before the vote when city attorney Stephen Postema “came in and told me that two of the council members [Eaton and Lumm] had approached him and said that they wanted to terminate the contract.”
How did they line up support without public discussion or violating the Open Meetings Act? It “wasn’t a backroom cabal,” Ramlawi says. “There were a lot of individual conversations that my colleagues had where the city administrator [was discussed], all independently of each other.” But “we as a group didn’t talk about it.”
“There was nothing particularly secretive going on,” Nelson emails. “Only thing worth clarifying: this was not a big surprise, anyone who claims it was a surprise is not telling the truth.”
“It was a huge surprise,” Taylor responds. “The presence of tension was not a surprise, but the firing was. [Lazarus] knew that it was possible. He didn’t think it was probable.”
“The contract I have has some very specific [legal] terms as to what determines ‘for cause,'” Lazarus says. “A lot of it deals with behavior. And none of those provisions were met.
“There are times where some [councilmembers] have expressed displeasure over certain issues, and I think that’s their right to do that. But it’s to be expected. But I’ve felt like I’ve always engaged in respectful exchanges with all the councilmembers.”
The firing left the city without an administrator just as the Covid-19 emergency hit. Finance chief Tom Crawford is filling the role on an interim basis, and the search for a replacement hasn’t begun yet.
The mayor suspects the next administrator may have to be paid more: “The termination of Mr. Lazarus, a gentleman of credibility and character, without cause would give qualified candidates pause before considering or taking an offer made by the current council.”