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Council forces city manager out
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
It started as a routine Tuesday for Baker City Manager Gordon Zimmerman, but before noon his 4 1/2-year tenure, to his surprise, had ended.
After meeting with Mayor Peter Ellingson at City Hall about 11 a.m. and learning that the City Council wanted to replace him, Zimmerman wrote a one-paragraph resignation letter.
He read the letter to city department heads.
Then he went home.
"That's it," Zimmerman said in a telephone interview Tuesday evening, about 90 minutes after the City Council voted 7-0 to accept his resignation.
Ellingson said he told Zimmerman during the meeting that "the council thought we needed to change direction."
"Philosophically we have a difference in the direction Gordon takes, and some things he pursues," Ellingson said.
Tuesday's announcement shocked city officials.
City Attorney Tim Collins said he knew nothing about the situation before Zimmerman read his resignation letter.
Tuesday was not, however, the first time Zimmerman's job had been in jeopardy since he came to Baker City in November 1998.
In July 2001 a motion before the City Council seeking Zimmerman's resignation failed by a single vote.
In its most recent evaluation of Zimmerman, in August 2002, the council rated his performance as better than satisfactory.
It's not clear what would have happened had Zimmerman refused to resign.
No city manager has been fired since Baker City switched to a council-manager form of government in 1951.
On Tuesday, neither Zimmerman nor Ellingson said the council had vowed to fire Zimmerman had he declined to leave voluntarily.
But both said it was obvious after their meeting Tuesday morning that the council did not want Zimmerman to stay.
"The council, in general, seems to be looking for a new direction, new leadership," Ellingson said after the council meeting Tuesday evening.
Zimmerman said that although he agreed to resign, he does not believe he could have saved his job by refusing.
"When the council says it's time to go, it's time to go," he said. "There comes a time when the council wants to choose their own man."
Zimmerman said he neither expected to be asked to resign, nor did he want to do so.
"I love Baker City," he said. "It's a great place, and I love being city manager here."
The council unanimously approved a severance package that will pay Zimmerman his regular salary and continue his health benefits through the end of the fiscal year, June 30.
Zimmerman made $5,969 per month.
Ellingson said he had discussed the severance deal with councilors, and offered it to Zimmerman during their meeting Tuesday morning.
The council also voted to ask the League of Oregon Cities to help the council search for Zimmerman's replacement.
Councilors did not name an interim city manager, although Ellingson said he does not think the council will appoint a current city employee to fill the vacancy, even temporarily.
Mayor worked behind scenes to gauge support for a change
Ellingson declined to list specific reasons why the council sought to replace Zimmerman.
"We put a lot of thought into it," Ellingson said. "This isn't an easy thing to do."
Ellingson said he discussed the situation individually with each of the six other council members prior to meeting with Zimmerman.
Ellingson said that the day after he was elected mayor in early January, he received a phone call from a council member who expressed concerns about Zimmerman.
He heard from another councilor soon after.
"Certainly there was a movement afoot to retire Gordon," Ellingson said.
He said he talked with councilors again about a month later to determine whether they felt the same.
Ellingson said they did, and that led to Tuesday morning's meeting with Zimmerman.
Zimmerman said he asked Ellingson whether the council was dissatisfied with his performance, or if there were other reasons councilors wanted to replace him.
"He just said it's time to change direction," Zimmerman said. "That's all I got."
Councilor Nancy Shark said that although she agrees with Ellingson that replacing Zimmerman was a general goal among the council, that was "not a goal for me personally."
Shark did not cite any specific concerns other councilors had mentioned, but she said she believes Zimmerman was a good city manager.
"Gordon's work, as far as I know, is just fine," she said. "I don't think it was job-performance related."
Ellingson agreed that Zimmerman did the work the council expected him to do.
But in some instances the council disliked the way Zimmerman handled issues or dealt with people, Ellingson said.
Although he declined to name specific cases, on at least two issues this year the council soundly rejected Zimmerman's recommendation.
Councilors declined to buy a franchise with Sky Taxi, a fledgling airline company that Zimmerman touted as a beneficial service to local residents.
And on Tuesday the council needed just a few minutes to reject Zimmerman's proposal to raise money to maintain streets and sidewalks by imposing a pair of monthly fees on residents and businesses, and to enact a citywide gas tax.
Shark said the timing of Zimmerman's resignation concerns her.
In less than two months the council is scheduled to start reviewing budget projections for the next fiscal year. The outlook is gloomy, with expenses rising faster than income. The council already has prepared for possible shortfalls by not replacing either of the two police officers who resigned in the past five months.
And Zimmerman was a member of the city's negotiating team during contract talks with the police union, whose labor deal expires June 30.
"There's a lot of things going on right now," Shark said. "I'm sure we'll get through them, but there is a transition period I am concerned about."
Councilor Jeff Petry downplayed Shark's fears.
"It's not going to be a problem," he said. "We have lots of experience on the budget board and lots of experience on the council."
Performance reviews positive
If anything, Zimmerman's future seemed more secure recently than it had the previous 18 months.
When the City Council evaluated his job performance in July 2001, his average for 12 categories was 2.48 on a scale in which 1 is poor, 3 satisfactory and 5 exemplary.
Councilors placed Zimmerman on probation after that evaluation.
They re-evaluated him in October 2001, boosting his average to 3.28 and ending his probation.
Zimmerman's most recent evaluation took place in August 2002.
His average score in the same 12 categories was 3.77, and he scored higher in every area compared with the previous year. Zimmerman's lowest score was 3.43; his highest score in the July 2001 evaluation was 3.00.
Six of the seven councilors who evaluated Zimmerman last August are still on the council today.
The only new member is Randy Daugherty, who was elected in November and replaced Beverly Calder, whose term ended Dec. 31, 2002. Calder did not run for re-election.
During the August meeting at which the council evaluated Zimmerman, several councilors lauded him for striving to correct the problems noted in the July 2001 evaluation.
Petry, who was one of Zimmerman's harshest critics during that evaluation and voted for the failed motion to ask Zimmerman to resign, said in August that "he got high marks from me."
Petry said Zimmerman had improved his attitude in dealing with the public; the year before Petry and other councilors had criticized Zimmerman for allegedly acting in an arrogant fashion and treating citizens rudely.
Petry said this morning that although he did give Zimmerman higher marks in August, based on the previous year's evaluation "he had nowhere to go but up."
Ellingson agreed with Petry at the August meeting.
"Generally speaking I think Gordon has improved his demeanor and his dealing with the public," Ellingson said at the time. "I think that he is working well, and better, in all the categories the council lined out for him."
Manager had looked for other work
Zimmerman had applied for the city manager job in several other Oregon cities after the City Council placed him on probation in July 2001.
Zimmerman said he did not want to leave Baker City, but that he sought other work because his future in Baker City seemed tenuous, and because he had no contract with the city and thus was not legally entitled to severance pay.
In addition, the city charter allows the City Council to fire the city manager for any reason.
Zimmerman asked the City Council to consider drafting a two-year contract that would guarantee him a severance package equal to six months of salary about $35,800.
A council subcommittee considered Zimmerman's proposal, but the full council never voted on the matter.
No city manager has had an employment contract.
The severance package the council approved Tuesday is a bit more than half what Zimmerman has asked for.
What now for Zimmerman?
Zimmerman said he probably will look for work as a city manager in Oregon, although he won't necessarily confine his search to this state.
Before moving to Baker City he served as city manager in Vernonia and in Nyssa.
"I'm going to look at lots of options," he said. "I'll be spreading my resume around the state."
Zimmerman, 51, and his wife, Coral, have seven children, three of whom are still of school age.
He wishes the council good luck in its search for a new city manager.
"I hope whoever they get will fall in love with Baker City like I did," he said.
Ellingson said the council "wants to be positive about this," and will give Zimmerman a positive reference should he seek another job.
"I don't want there to be any reflection on him because of this," Ellingson said.