A majority of Dubuque City Council members this summer were prepared to fire longtime City Manager Mike Van Milligen for a list of 16 alleged failings and concerns over his ability to lead “our city and staff in a trustworthy, ethical and fair fashion.”
Those accusations included claims of misleading council members and allowing “ongoing, unchecked discrimination and bullying,” according to documents recently obtained by the Telegraph Herald.
Instead, council members tentatively agreed in closed-meeting discussions to retain an outside law firm to conduct “an investigation into and evaluation of the current workplace culture,” including “assessing the city manager’s performance,” according to a memo from City Attorney Crenna Brumwell to a Des Moines law firm provided to the TH and interviews with council members.
However, following the resignation of then-Ward 3 Council Member Kate Larson in August, there was no longer a majority willing to move ahead with an investigation, according to Council Members Brett Shaw and Jake Rios.
“There was no resolution,” Shaw said. “The conversation stopped, but the reality was we effectively lost the number of votes to have an investigation and discussion on the matter.”
Other council members declined to comment and would not confirm whether there was discussion or agreement to retain outside counsel, citing the confidential nature of the discussions.
“I don’t find any of those things credible,” said at-large Council Member Ric Jones of the claims made by Larson, Shaw, Jake Rios and Luis Del Toro in their letter. “I don’t believe (Van Milligen’s) leadership is compromised or was ever compromised. I think we have an outstanding city manager, and I stand behind him.”
Van Milligen declined to comment, saying in an emailed statement, “I intend to respect the state laws governing this process, and I intend to respect my fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers of the City of Dubuque.”
Mayor Roy Buol called Van Milligen “a very ethical person who is honest and has the city’s best interest at the forefront of every dealing he’s had.”
“It’s extremely unfortunate that anything that may have been in a closed session has been released because, ethically, that’s a violation,” he said.
Brumwell, in an email to the Telegraph Herald, wrote, “Matters discussed in closed session are confidential by statute and can only be released by court order.”
The city, though, received at least one response to its request for proposals, according to city documents provided to TH by Rios, who recorded the closed-door meetings without the knowledge of other council members.
The request stated council “will require a recommendation related to the employment status of the city manager — removal of the city manager vs. a performance improvement plan.”
Rios, who chose not to seek re-election to his Ward 4 seat and will be out of office at the end of the year, said he recorded the meetings because he was worried the city would delete its record of the deliberations.
“The perception was this group of council members were trying to get rid of the city manager for personal reasons … and was going to put us in a bad light,” Rios said.
The document signed by Del Toro, Larson, Rios and Shaw was posted to social media on Tuesday when polls were open across the state. Four Dubuque City Council races were on ballots — two involving incumbents. In those, Laura Roussell unseated Del Toro, while at-large Council Member David Resnick easily won re-election.
Rios then shared the post containing that document late Tuesday, more than two hours after the polls closed.
The document, which the Telegraph Herald previously had obtained and was in the process of authenticating, outlines 16 reasons a majority of council members had pushed to terminate Van Milligen’s employment.
Larson said she drafted the document based on concerns the four council members raised in closed meetings this summer. It was provided to the rest of the council members and the city attorney for discussion.
Rios and Shaw said Wednesday that they both signed the document. Del Toro did not return messages seeking comment.
Some of the reasons listed in the document focus on the alleged mishandling of a lawsuit by the Dubuque Police Department’s highest-ranking female officer and her promotion to captain. Abby Simon is suing the city on the grounds of gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation.
Simon could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Larson, Shaw, Rios and Del Toro allege in the document that in February 2018, prior to a city budget work session, Van Milligen held a series of small-group meetings with council members to discuss adding a police captain position.
The council members allege Van Milligen provided a memo that council members were asked to read and return. It detailed an allegation of sexual discrimination by Simon, who recently had applied, tested and interviewed for an open captain’s position, only to be turned down despite having the highest civil service exam score among all applicants.
The memo went on to state that the position had been fairly awarded based on a composite consideration of exam scores, interviews and job experience. But the document culminated in a recommendation to add a captain’s position to be awarded to Simon. Council members, who ultimately approved the recommendation, said they were also asked by Van Milligen “not to question the recommendation during upcoming public budget hearings due to the sensitivity of the matter.”
Months later, in November 2018, the city manager called a closed session to discuss the likelihood of a lawsuit from Simon. During that meeting, council members said it was revealed that Simon’s sexual discrimination allegations “encompasses more than 10 years of hostile environment allegations.”
“The supporting documentation also revealed that Police Chief Mark Dalsing had authored a memo to highlight the reasons that a new captain’s position should not be created and subsequently awarded to (Simon),” council members wrote in their letter. “The revelation that substantive contextual information was withheld from the City Council in relation to the city manager’s recommendation ... caused a serious loss of confidence and trust in city manager by a majority of council members.”
Larson, Shaw, Rios and Del Toro argue in their letter that Van Milligen should have shared that information with the council. Had he done so, they would not have supported creating the captain’s position.
“It, to me, sounded either like blackmail or a bribe,” Rios said.
Larson and Shaw echoed that sentiment, both to the TH and in recordings of the closed meetings, with Larson characterizing it as “hush money” in one of those sessions.
Other reasons stated for firing the city manager included the loss of talented, racially diverse and female staffers due to “unchecked discrimination and bullying” that has led to a hostile workplace.
Former city Director of Transportation Services Candace Eudaley-Loebach sent council members an email Aug. 11 claiming she was “bullied, belittled, and my experience and expertise were mocked by the city manager.”
“I was forced to make recommendations that were against my best judgment and watched projects I worked on shut down because of the city manager’s dislike of certain developers,” she wrote, adding, “It makes me sick to ... know that my City Council will not discuss the hostile work environment created by the city manager.”
Eudaley-Loebach, who had held her position since 2013, left it in November 2018.
Van Milligen sent a letter to council members on Aug. 14 arguing that he made diversity, equity and inclusion a priority within the city, including the implementation of “a very sophisticated intercultural competency program” and the hiring of three black department managers.
“I have intentionally created an organization in transition, moving from a white male-dominated organization to an organization with 60% of the department managers being women and minorities,” he wrote, noting the “goal is to hire and/or promote the most-qualified and most-talented person.” “The easier, less risky path would be to continue with a white male-dominated organization. Instead, I have taken the risk to prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion.”
The four council members, however, claimed in their letter that Van Milligen’s “actions and inactions have placed the city and council at higher risk of litigation than is acceptable” and that “new leadership (should) be sought for Dubuque.”
“It’s the council that has failed in this regard,” Shaw told the TH on Wednesday. “As long as we have a majority on council willing to bury their heads in the sand and ignore their responsibility as managers, then, optically, from a public point of view, there is no problem.”
Nearly half of the City Council in 2020 will be comprised of newcomers.
The first addition will be Ward 3 Council Member-elect Danny Sprank, who will be sworn in next week to fill a vacancy created by the departure of Larson.
On Wednesday, Sprank said he “wasn’t aware” of the situation involving the city manager and “wasn’t involved” in composing the letter or the incidents referenced therein. Accordingly, he declined to comment on specific details.
“We just need more information,” Sprank said. “I have no idea what’s going on (with this situation). It’s very unusual. It’s a sad situation.”
Likewise, incoming Ward 4 Council Member Brad Cavanagh said he was “uncomfortable” commenting on the situation. While he had read the letter shared by Rios, he has not been privy to the other side of the conversation.
Ward 2 Council Member-elect Laura Roussell also declined to comment. However, she said she will “certainly be taking a look” at this issue once sworn in.
Resnick did not respond to a message seeking comment for this story.