It’s unclear exactly what was afoot at last week’s Dubuque City Council meeting when a motion to conduct an executive (closed-door) session failed.

But we can make an educated guess.

Luis Del Toro said he and three fellow council members wanted the executive session to discuss the job performance of a city employee. Hmmm. Exactly three employees report to the council: the clerk, the attorney and the city manager.

Mayor Roy Buol and Council Members Ric Jones and David Resnick opposed the executive session, so the move fell short of the supermajority that Iowa law requires for closed sessions.

Then, three of the four supporting the executive session voted “no” on adjourning the meeting. So the evening’s proceedings came to an awkward conclusion on a 4-3 vote — highly unusual for public meetings occurring in this solar system.

Exactly what is going on has not been publicly disclosed. Think there could be a split vote over the clerk or attorney?

So we’ll make this leap:

If parting ways with City Manager Mike Van Milligen is what this is about, we’ll go on record in opposition.

Van Milligen has served this community capably and with integrity for more than a quarter-century, through challenging times on multiple fronts. Dubuque has prospered through that period, and Van Milligen personally and city government collectively have contributed to the civic turnaround and success.

The city manager deserves a substantial share of the credit; he certainly would have received blame had the results fallen short.

So, some think Dubuque can do better than Mike Van Milligen? Not only would they see how difficult finding that individual would be, they would see other communities lining up to recruit him (as has quietly occurred over the years).

Removing Van Milligen would be a short-sighted mistake.

Now, he would be the first to tell you that he’s not perfect. We’ve heard grumbling in some quarters about an intense management style. In his job, he will never have everyone agreeing with him on everything. Indeed, in TH editorials we have challenged, questioned or disagreed with some of his decisions — particularly those involving city spending and debt.

But even there, there has been progress. Over the past five years, Dubuque has reduced its municipal debt by nearly $29 million (almost 10%) and backed away from the debt ceiling by 35%.

The line between the council members who presumably want Van Milligen out and those who do not can be drawn by longevity: The four who voted for the executive session are in their first four-year terms — two with 1½ years and two with 3½ years of service. And one of the latter, Jake Rios, is unofficially a lame duck; he has repeatedly said he won’t seek re-election this year.

Perhaps these least-experienced council members — Rios, Del Toro, Brett Shaw and Kate Larson — could use a history refresher. Dial back the clock to 1993, when Van Milligen was hired here, and you will see a very different community.

In 1993, Dubuque city government was facing the repercussions of the Iowa Trust Fund scandal, including a loss of public credibility and confidence. The entire community was still feeling the effects of cross-burnings and other racial issues — and the resultant national media coverage. The city’s meatpacking plant was flagging and, as it happened, two years from closure.

The riverfront was lined with storage tanks, and none of the $188 million America’s River Project makeover had begun. The Millwork District, blocks of deteriorating vacant buildings, was an area that most Dubuquers had written off.

Lower Main was sketchy, or worse, and dozens of historic buildings were in desperate need of attention and preservation. Flooded basements were a regular occurrence throughout the North End.

Nearly 900 acres of privately owned farmland stood where today thousands of people are employed in the Industrial Park West and the Technology Park. It was in the mid-1990s when Van Milligen helped lead an aggressive approach to local economic development, and one result was creation of those industrial parks.

Dubuque has grown, prospered and soared during Mike Van Milligen’s dedicated leadership. He is not perfect, but the council members who think we can do better than him should step up and name a community that wouldn’t trade places with Dubuque.

Citizens might have limited opportunity to weigh in with their opinions: The council has a closed session for professional evaluations set for 3:30 p.m. Monday. Now is the time for residents to let elected city officials know how they feel. The future direction of the community might depend on it.

Editorials reflect the consensus of the Telegraph Herald Editorial Board.

Copyright, Telegraph Herald. This story cannot be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior authorization from the TH.