By Frank Lewis
Portsmouth City Manager Derek Allen has taken the gloves off, saying now he realizes the things he had been warned about concerning the way the city is operated are true. And now he is laying it all out in a five-page open letter to City Council in which he says things must change immediately.
“That is how it has always been.” That was a sentence he heard from many of his colleagues when they warned him not to take the job in Portsmouth because the city government was not politically stable.
He says during the interview process with Novac Consulting Group they discussed the negative factors that he says has lead to political instability in the past.
He said Novac had assured him the current City Council was different and more professional and that they would be receptive to the changes that a city manager would recommend and have to implement. He said during the interview process with City Council their appearance of professionalism reinforced the notion of a renewed commitment and dedication to having a trained professional run the city. So Allen took the job — then the wheels came off.
Allen said that in the first six months as city manager he has been disappointed in how the City Manager-City Council relationship has developed, recognizing there is an expectation of issues when a form of government is changed. In his correspondence, Allen lists the names of 17 city managers who served from 1930 through 1989 and how long their employment lasted, ranging from eight months to 8 years.
He said the city had a chance to reverse the course by relying on the training and experience of an unbiased outsider with a new perspective.
“Instead, I have become increasingly more frustrated with the actions that have occurred repeatedly since my arrival in January,” Allen said. “From City Council involving themselves in day-to-day management issues, to initiating policy, submitting charter amendments and ordinances absent any input or involvement from the city manager to making public insults to individuals and agencies that the city manager must work with in harmony. The level of dysfunction within the city of Portsmouth is far greater than I could have ever imagined when I accepted the position of city manager.”
Allen lists three problems that he says must be overcome if the city is to realize success. Council must remove themselves from the administrative branch of government and allow him to do his job; Council must come to an understanding of the Council/Manager form of government operates and eliminate “the power struggle that appears to be happening” and Council must present a professional demeanor and not insult those sectors of the public with which he had to develop partnerships.
“At the June 23, 2014, City Council meeting, I was embarrassed regarding comments (that) were made in a public setting which were insulting to Southern Ohio Medical Center (SOMC), the city of Portsmouth’s largest contributor of income tax; to the Southern Ohio Port Authority (SOPA) with whom we are partnering for economic development inside the city of Portsmouth and to the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility (SOCF), who has assisted the city of Portsmouth in the past,” Allen said.
Allen says City Council has continued to blur the line between the administrative and legislative branches of government from conducting committee meetings that he says either develop initiatives and directives that are absent a presence from the administrative side of government and are often in direct contrast with the goals that that same Council gave him to do.
Only once in the letter does Allen seem to single out an individual. He says, according to his contract, there is to be an evaluation of his performance “annually in December.” He said that clause calls for the evaluation to be “mutually agreed upon by employer and employee.”
“I am unclear as to why the First Ward Council member would state that he was going to prepare a six month evaluation and bring in anyone who is not the ‘employer’ of the city manager,” Allen wrote. The First Ward Councilman is Kevin W. Johnson, who has now moved up to be Mayor with the resignation of Steve Sturgill.
In that same line of thought, Allen reminds Council - “No one Council member has more authority to direct the work of the city manager than any of the other five. This concept seems to be lost.”
Allen attached an email sent by Kevin W. Johnson to him dated June 24 which reads - “Appreciate opportunity to sit & chat this morn, Derek. Attached is the very good article I mentioned to you. Follow ups…Future meetings…would like to separate discussions between that which is confidential and for my information only and that which I may discuss with Council as occasion permits. Please provide my phone numbers to Fire & Police chiefs as I wish to be informed of those incidents for which you are notified. This is for my information only, as you have the responsibility. I will, however, occasion(ally) choose to show up for the purpose of ‘showing the flag’ and advise Council but not to interfere in any way. I am available 24 hours a day. As discussed, I will initiate process for your evaluation. And will be doing same for city clerk. Not discussed…please consider the city obtaining ‘key man’ insurance for you; minimum $250K. Am sure you understand why.”
Johnson comments on Allen’s being “worn out,” and suggests a two-week vacation.
Allen goes on to say - “There is not confidential information that some Council members receive and other do not receive. That is not how I work with the legislative body of any municipality in which I work. In addition, we will not be provided safety sensitive information regarding criminal cases to City Council members. This information is not a component of the legislative branch of government.”
Allen concludes by saying he wants a functional and rewarding relationship with City Council and that the changes he outlined need to be implemented in order to move forward - “working together on successful strategies in the short and long term.”
Frank Lewis can be reached at 740-353-3101, Ext. 1928, or on Twitter @FrankLewispdt.