Rewriting history: The curious cases of Gordon Zimmerman

By Jayson Jacoby September 02, 2011 04:14 pm

Gordon Zimmerman’s 4 1/2-year tenure as Baker City manager can’t reasonably be described as tranquil.

In the span of less than a year after he started work here in November 1998, Zimmerman was cited twice for harassment outside a nude dancing business in Nyssa, where he had worked as city manager.

Zimmerman was a longtime critic of the business, and he had picketed the place.

The Baker City Council didn’t punish Zimmerman for those incidents.

But in July 2001 the Council, having lost confidence in him, put Zimmerman on probation after a motion calling for him to resign failed by a single vote.

Yet compared with the troubles that have befallen Zimmerman this summer in Oakridge, the Lane County town where he was hired as manager after he resigned at the Baker City Council’s request in March 2003, his time here, despite the periodic turmoil, seems almost peaceful.

Zimmerman’s biggest problem in Baker City, it seems to me, is that he was more eager to spend money, and to get some of those dollars from city residents, than was a majority of the seven city councilors who were his bosses.

In Oakridge the money has already been spent.

And nobody — including Zimmerman — has yet been able to explain what Oakridge got for the $420,000 that can’t be accounted for.

As you might expect, this has created quite a controversy in the town of 3,000.

According to a story published this week in Eugene’s Register-Guard newspaper, Zimmerman said he will resign once the investigation into Oakridge’s financial mess is finished.

Reporters from the Eugene paper interviewed two former Baker City councilors who were in office when Zimmerman resigned — Chuck Hofmann and Jeff Petry.

Hofmann’s take on Zimmerman’s tenure here is mostly accurate, albeit deficient in context.

Hofmann told the reporters that Zimmerman proposed imposing a local sales tax on gasoline and a monthly surcharge on Baker City’s water/sewer bills, ideas that the City Council soundly rejected.

That’s true.

However, the story didn’t say what Zimmerman intended to do with the money — maintain streets and sidewalks, an issue that you’ve probably heard about from City Hall a few times since Zimmerman’s departure.

Nor did the article mention that three years ago the Baker City Council did approve a utility surcharge to pay for sidewalks.

Hofmann also referred to Zimmerman advocating that the city buy a franchise in a fledgling scheduled airline service called Sky Taxi, despite the City Council’s repeated concerns about the city’s financial liability.

Also true.

But Hofmann’s quotes — among them, “We said, ‘Gordon, no, we aren’t going to buy an airplane’ ” — leave the distinct impression that Zimmerman was basically out dickering for a new Cessna until the City Council told him to knock it off.

Not exactly.

Certainly Zimmerman persisted in promoting Sky Taxi for months longer than what seems prudent, considering his bosses’ emphatic and consistent misgivings about the matter.

However, in February 2003, less than a month before the Council asked Zimmerman to resign, he recommended the city sever its financial ties to Sky Taxi because the company’s revenues were below projections.

The Council, not surprisingly, agreed.

Petry, whose first term as a councilor started in January 2001, was more critical of Zimmerman in his comments to the Register-Guard.

Petry’s version of history, though, seems to me rather more revisionist than Hofmann’s.

Petry told the newspaper that Zimmerman suggested a “huge rate increase” in Baker City sewer bills to pay for a multimillion-dollar sewage treatment plant.

But it turned out, Petry said, that the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) only wanted the city to submit a report about its sewer system, not to actually build a new plant.

The Register-Guard quoted Petry as saying Zimmerman “didn’t have the skill set to be manager of Baker City. He wasn’t qualified. He didn’t understand budgeting. I was amazed Oakridge hired him.”

In fact, Zimmerman didn’t merely propose big sewer rate hikes — he got them.

The City Council, which has the sole authority to raise sewer rates, boosted them by more than 100 percent during Zimmerman’s tenure, with hikes in 2001, 2002 and 2003.

The reality of the situation, though, is considerably more complicated than Petry implies, which is that Zimmerman misunderstood what the DEQ expected of Baker City and as a result convinced the Council to plunder residents’ pockets to deal with a phantom threat from state regulators.

For at least the past decade, including during Zimmerman’s tenure in Baker City, DEQ officials have warned city officials to prepare for the day when the city no longer will be allowed to pipe its treated wastewater into the Powder River.

That day still hasn’t arrived.

But DEQ officials have given City Hall no reason to believe that it won’t.

Indeed the city, in response to the DEQ’s continuing, albeit less than insistent, statements about the future of the sewer system, has paid an engineering firm for preliminary work on a project to pipe wastewater to a wetlands near Baldock Slough, east of Interstate 84.

And so it seems to me disingenuous for Petry to contend now that Zimmerman was reckless, and that the DEQ was, well, just blowing smoke.

(Something the DEQ frowns on, by the way.)

Petry didn’t act as though raising sewer rates was reckless back then.

In June 2003, three months after Zimmerman resigned, Petry, then a councilor, said during a City Council debate about whether to approve the last of those three annual sewer rate increases that “we definitely need to be putting money away.”

That debate also showed that the purpose of raising sewer rates during Zimmerman’s tenure was not limited to DEQ’s concerns about the city polluting the Powder.

In 2001 the city spent some of the money it collected from higher sewer rates to buy machines that prevented sludge from accumulating in its sewer lagoons — potentially a more pressing problem than a DEQ mandate that then, as now, lacked an absolute deadline.

Petry pointed out in 2003 that the city had to borrow money to buy those machines and thus accrue interest, in part because it didn’t have a sufficient reserve fund in the sewer budget to buy the devices outright.

Then, in February 2004, the city’s auditor told councilors that even with the sewer rate increases in each of the previous three years, the department’s reserve was dropping due to increased maintenance costs and the payments on those sludge-preventing machines.

Petry gave a similarly harsh overview of Zimmerman’s performance in an interview with a Eugene TV station this July.

KEZI, in a story on its website, quoted Petry as saying that Zimmerman had a similar budget problem while in Baker City.

After Zimmerman told councilors in 2001 (the TV station reported the year as 2003) that he might need to lay off police officers and firefighters to balance the city’s budget, “We find out, ‘Oops, there’s an extra half-million,’ ” Petry told the TV station. “That didn’t sit well with the council.”

“Just incompetence,” Petry said.

Absolutely.

But Zimmerman doesn’t deserve all of the blame — or probably even much of it — for the situation Petry described.

The city’s finance director had underestimated the city’s revenue, prompting Zimmerman to predict financial trouble.

Zimmerman fired that finance director in May 2001.

I’m not suggesting that Zimmerman was an exemplary city manager for Baker City, or that the Council lacked a credible reason for asking him to resign.

Nor do I believe that Petry and Hofmann have defamed him with their comments to media outlets that are, for obvious reasons, much more interested in examining how Zimmerman has managed Oakridge than in explaining the details of what he did in Baker City a decade ago.

Still and all, I can well imagine Oakridge residents reading the Register-Guard story or watching KEZI’s coverage and concluding, based in part on Petry and Hofmann’s comments, that Oakridge officials really botched things when they hired Zimmerman in 2003.

The implication being that those officials either ignored obvious evidence of Zimmerman’s incompetence when they visited Baker City in 2003 to check his credentials, or else they didn’t look hard enough to find it.

But in fact, Zimmerman, though he had conflicts with his bosses on the Baker City Council — hardly an uncommon situation with city managers — had during the 18 months before he resigned significantly improved his performance.

In July 2001, the month the Council nearly sought his resignation, Zimmerman’s average score in 12 categories, on a scale where 1 is poor, 3 satisfactory and 5 exemplary, was 2.48.

Petry cited that evaluation in his interview with KEZI.

“We lost confidence in him,” Petry said.

They did.

But then Zimmerman regained that confidence — or at least he did if the public is to believe that councilors’ numerical evaluations accurately measure their feelings about the manager.

In October 2001, three months after putting Zimmerman on probation, the Council re-evaluated him. His average score had risen to 3.28, and the Council canceled his probation.

In August 2002, his last evaluation, his average score was 3.77.

Petry said during a Council meeting that month that he “appreciates the improvement” and that Zimmerman “got high marks from me. He’s listening.”

Petry specifically credited Zimmerman for his work on the 2002 budget.

So did Hofmann.

“Gordon knew what was in that budget; he knew it to the penny,” Hofmann said.

That’s not the sort of the record that suggests, as Petry contends, that Zimmerman was incapable of managing a small city and prone to budget blunders.

Nor does that record brand Zimmerman as a manager any competent elected official would avoid.

On the other hand, based on the news coming from Oakridge, you could argue a pretty compelling case that Baker City fared better from its association with Zimmerman than his current city has.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.