Few Dubuquers could have predicted that last week’s biggest news involving city government would not have been results of the election in which a majority of City Council seats were decided.
But that’s what happened.
Three newcomers, including the victor over a one-term incumbent, will join at-large incumbent David Resnick at the council table. Danny Sprank, elected to serve the final two-plus years of the term of Kate Larson, who in August resigned as Ward 3 member, will be sworn in next week. The other two victors, Ward 2’s Laura Roussell, who ousted incumbent Luis Del Toro, and Ward 4’s Brad Cavanagh, begin their four-year terms in January.
Once all the council members are in place, they have plenty to talk about.
In late summer, Dubuquers became aware of discord on the seven-member council, apparently over the performance and future employment of City Manager Mike Van Milligen. It manifested itself publicly through a tie vote on whether to go into closed session, failure to pass a routine motion to adjourn a council meeting, and decisions following Larson’s resignation.
In recent days, through Facebook posts by the current Ward 4 council member, Jake Rios, who did not seek re-election, and Telegraph Herald reporting based on materials provided by Rios, Dubuquers are learning just how deep those divisions were.
Space does not allow us to summarize the entire saga here. If you are not up to speed, it behooves you to read Thursday’s front-page article. It involves a council member, Rios, surreptitiously and possibly illegally making audio recording(s) of the council’s closed-door debate on issues involving Van Milligen and Rios providing confidential materials to the TH — coincidentally or not, just before the election. (The TH had agreed to not divulge the source — until Rios and an ally took to Facebook to post some of the material themselves.)
Talk about palace intrigue.
The material confirms that the council came extremely close to firing Van Milligen, city manager since 1993, over more than a dozen listed concerns and alleged failings. That didn’t happen, but council members then tentatively agreed to contract with an outside firm to independently and objectively look into those matters.
As it turned out, Larson’s immediate resignation blew up those plans. Soon to leave the community because of her husband’s job change, she initially intended to serve through the calendar year before stepping down, but moved up her resignation so her successor could be selected by voters rather than through council appointment. Her hope then was to be appointed to her own vacated seat and serve nearly three more months, until just after the election.
However, on the question of appointing Larson, the remaining six members split down the middle — Del Toro, Brett Shaw and Rios in favor and Mayor Roy Buol, Resnick and Ric Jones opposed. It was one of a handful of rare 3-3 stalemates.
On Aug. 11 and previous editorials, we expressed our support for Van Milligen as a key leader in this community. He has provided leadership, vision and resources toward the improved standing and growth of Dubuque. Overseeing a municipal operation of more than 700 employees, providing all sorts of amenities and services, is no walk in the park. There are bound to be differences of opinion, complaints and bad chemistry.
With that said, however, the Dubuque City Council owes it to all parties — citizens, current and former city employees and especially Van Milligen — to perform its due diligence on its concerns and those that have come to members’ attention. Do complaints have merit? Do they not? What performance or personnel changes are warranted?
Out-and-out and immediate firing — without providing communication, direction and, if appropriate, time for improvement — would have been a disservice to Van Milligen. But it’s also a disservice to citizens and people with concerns to block an independent, objective investigation and review of matters. So, we take issue with members of both camps.
Though Rios will be called to account for his actions regarding secret recording and disclosure of confidential and closed-door matters, the community does have a clearer idea of what the heck is going on.
What council members need — especially the members-elect — is objective information. From there, they need to provide the city manager, one of only three employees directly under their authority, clear communication and direction on what they expect going forward.