Conflict heats up

Council split over administrator's role

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Eldridge council members head into a June 7 meeting with a packed agenda to face up to festering conflicts that all members pledged to end.

The council’s resolve came at a crowded, May 19 meeting that began with an earnest apology from interim police chief Joe Sisler, and divulged ongoing conflicts between department heads and city administrator Lisa Kotter, and rifts among council members.

At the June 7 meeting, council members said they will:

Figure out how to pick the next police chief, including the makeup of a screening committee, hiring criteria, pay levels and an interview process.

Consider an estimated $3,200 pay raise for city administrator Lisa Kotter’s $106,000 annual salary to compensate for the council’s delayed evaluation, due in September, according to her contract.

Establish a process to conclude Kotter’s evaluation, that so far includes two meetings last fall with department heads critical of Kotter’s management style and directives.

Consider eliminating finance, personnel, public safety and other council committees, which members acknowledge have been operating outside of Iowa open meeting laws. Instead, the council would convene more committee-of-the-whole meetings where all members discuss city business, but take no formal action.

Interim chief apologizes

About 20 filled the room in the Eldridge Community Center May 19 for a three-hour committee of the whole discussion. That came two days after 30 attended a three-hour council meeting where the interim chief and the top sergeant accused the council of neglecting public safety and disrespecting officers. At the same meeting, the council approved raises for Sisler and interim Sgt. Andrew Lellig, and $30,000 worth of public safety expenditures.

On May 19, interim chief Sisler apologized for confronting the council.

“That’s something that should not have been done in front of the public. I’m ashamed of that. We don’t need to air our dirty laundry that can be fixed.

“I’m sorry you guys were exposed to what’s going on. On my behalf, I’m ashamed of it,” he said.

Eldridge resident Matt Poole, who also has criticized the council, jumped to Sisler’s defense. “Don’t ever apologize for being passionate about your job. Take pride in your passion,” he said.

Sisler didn’t budge. “We’re better than what you’ve seen. I will move forward in a positive direction. We’ll work with the mayor, Lisa and the council.”

Sisler extended his hand to every elected official.

Council members accepted the apology.

“It takes a lot for an individual to recognize that,” Adrian Blackwell said. “I appreciate you coming out and saying that. I kind of take offense when someone says don’t apologize. I think you’re a man coming out and offering an apology.”

Dockery agreed. “Joe, you know me to be one of the biggest supporters of the police department. Can I get stubborn once in awhile…?” Dockery said.

“We both can,” Sisler concluded.

Council member Frank King said he respected the apology, and Sisler’s leadership. “Joe, I’ve known you since you started. I know sometimes people say Eldridge is Mayberry. But there is lots of creepy crawly stuff in Davenport, and that stuff is creeping toward us,” King said, emphasizing his support for the police department.

Chief hiring process

The council asked Kotter to present a hiring plan that considers qualifications, responsibilities and a process for getting and screening applicants.

Kotter pitched an “assessment center” process she’s experienced in other towns where candidates separately face a series of challenges, then gather to be observed collaborating on a problem.

The challenges include a mock press conference with a surprise scenario before staff posing as reporters; a disciplinary hearing based on another scenario; and a timed essay.

The process also includes meeting with selected community members, and a town tour.

It culminates with all finalists working together as a panel watches them develop 10 ideas to respond to another scenario.

In an interview after the meeting, Kotter said the leaderless exercise allows the applicants to demonstrate collaborative skills. One example she recalled was asking applicants to talk through a plan to implement body cameras.

“You give them 30 minutes and we sit there in silence,” Kotter said. “I’ve observed some people instantly take charge and want to make sure they are heard. Other candidates, while they want to interject, make sure they include others. Sometimes you see people who sit in near silence.”

In those situations, Kotter said she’s looking for, “someone with some level of taking charge, and who cares about what other people think, and has a servant’s heart.”

Council member Cheek, a former Davenport police officer, said it is essential the evaluation panel includes a former officer.

“Hiring a chief is different than hiring anybody else. No other job in the world is like it, except being a military person. I’m the only one who has ever been a police officer.”

King asked for more than one citizen on the panel. “We should … bring in two citizens. In the past, we just weren’t aware… Now it shows there is input to be heard from the city of Eldridge,” he said.

(Corrected May 27, 20201 to report Adrian Blackwell's observations and his support for external and internal searches.)

Council member Blackwell reminded colleagues of police department changes already made to attract and retain officers by creating paths for growth.

“We were trying to resolve the issue regarding revolving door regarding officers coming here, being trained and going on to bigger and better positions.

 “Positions were created as to all officers to grow into those positions.

 He also put in a good word for current officers on staff.

 “There’s been discussion regarding residency requirements. We have an individual here who bought his house and moved his family here.

 I think we should look at that as well.” 

“If there are any misconceptions regarding our council and our respect for our police department, kindly consider and interpreting those proper actions as we move forward.

 “Again, with transparency, we should look abroad. But also remember, I think we have a qualified applicant here, maybe two or more. Consider that … as saying we appreciate you. Let’s move you on up and make a career here in the city of Eldridge.”

Kotter pay raise and evaluation

The council directed Kotter to draw up a resolution to be considered June 7 that awards her $3,000 performance pay raise her contract called for in September, and approximately $207 for a separate contract provision that adds a cost-of-living increase commensurate with hourly staff.

Her evaluation has been in the hands of the council’s three-man personnel committee: Brian Dockery, Bernie Peeters and mayor Marty O’Boyle.

O’Boyle said the committee convened two meetings last fall with department heads critical of Kotter’s management style and directives. He said pandemic concerns, and lots of other city business delayed further action.

Peeters acknowledged the six-month review was an essential part of Kotter’s employment contract.

“Just to clarify, Ms. Kotter was not everyone’s first choice. She had an aggregate total that was higher than the others, and after much discussion, the council came to the consensus to give her a try. At the same time we set up a six-month evaluation because we had concerns. We’d never done a six-month before, and it may have been a little ambitious. But then, as the mayor said, things came up. No excuse, I’ll put this on my shoulders. We did not do that.

“My feeling at six months is that we were doing her a favor by not doing an evaluation, because at that point it would not have been a very positive one,” Peeters said.

King said the delay created friction.

“The city has a grapevine that’s well fertilized. Everybody knows who talks to who on a daily basis. Nothing is sacred. Everybody just wanted to bitch and moan, and not give me anything concrete.  If you look back she’s completed things. She’s accomplished goals,” King said. “I think she has done a great job. We as a council, in good faith, should make her pay whole from back in September,” he said.

Dockery agreed. “Whatever we do on compensation should be retroactive to Sept. 1.”

As for the evaluation?

“The whole council should be involved,” King said. “I feel it’s like stacking the deck with just two people on that personnel committee. I don’t want you to take it personally, but that’s just not a good way to do it.”

Cheek said the council must back Kotter’s authority over department heads.

“I think part of the problem with it, as we’ve all learned, is they don’t know who’s in charge. We all should know that Ms. Kotter is in charge of all the employees, including the police department, and that was a big downfall from the beginning.

“She answers to us, the council, and she advises the mayor as to what’s going on. That’s it. They need to be told that she is their boss. No ifs, ands or buts about it.  … I don’t want to lose them, but it’s their choice if they want to go.”

Mayor O’Boyle disagreed.

“Mr. Cheek, when you start dismissing our employees, that have been here for years, and have done a terrific
job,” O’Boyle said. “I do not feel that we should disrespect their past years of service to this community. I take exception to that. ...They should have an opportunity to have a voice.”

“That’s not what I said. I don’t remember saying that if they don’t like it, they can leave,” Cheek said. “If you paid attention to what I said, was that I don’t want them to leave, but if they do, that’s on them. I just want to make sure it’s clear.”

Peeters acknowledged problems caused by the delay.

“The longer this has been drug out, the more factions have been created, dividing city personnel, dividing the council, dividing the city. I’d like to talk to people, and right now, there’s not a lot of people I would talk to. I will not talk to some of you because I’ve been betrayed in the past, and deliberately lied to and deliberately misled, so I’m very careful who I talk to and what information I give.

“When we meet as a whole and make decisions, I’m going to base it on facts. I know very little facts, compared to innuendos, accusations, slander, all that, and this and that," Peeters said.

All department heads attended the May 17 meeting. Only Sisler attended the May 19 meeting. Clerk Denise Benson attends all meetings.

Dockery suggested the council offer to review Kotter in a closed session, which is allowed under Iowa open records law.

Kotter said she was comfortable proceeding publicly, but would recommend a closed session to discuss moving the evaluation forward.

“The six of you need to meet, talk about the things that you’ve learned. I don’t need to hear that. Then you decide who is going to meet with me and who is going to tell me the positive, the things you need to work on, and these are goals you need to have. I struggle saying that you’re going to give me my review when the six of you have not met,” Kotter told the council.

After the meeting, Kotter said she’ll  schedule a closed session as part of the June 7 meeting for that discussion.

“That’s been my struggle with this eight-month process. I was hired by five council members and the mayor. Everything I’ve been led to believe is I understand that exclusively the mayor and two council members have been conducting this process. The other three have had nothing to do with this process. That is my objection to the process. Nothing in my contract would have led me to believe the majority of the council would be void of this process.”

Kotter urged council members to get more feedback from those she works with, not just department heads.

“Has anybody asked the utility board? The park board? From my understanding, they haven’t been consulted. How do I interact with the school district? Bond rating for the YMCA? Economic development?”

“I believe you all have the best intentions. This isn’t going to turn into another what happened with the police department. But things are said. I have been reprimanded in front of people who report to me on a regular basis. When you are told to stay out of a department you manage, what kind of message does that send?

“I’ve sat patiently, eight months after I should have had a review. I’ve literally had people tell me no when I asked them to do something. I think we have to be better. You’re basing your opinions strictly on 10 people.”

At the meeting, and in an interview afterward, Kotter attributed some concerns to staff accustomed to predecessor John Dowd’s leadership style for 30 years.

“You all knew this was going to be a transition, and unless you hired John Dowd the second, it wasn’t going to be easy,” she told the council.

Council member Cheek divulged he initially opposed Kotter for administrator. Kotter had worked 17 years as administrator in Clintonville, Wis., four years in Geneseo, and six months in Moline when she applied to Eldridge.

“When this whole process started, I was the only council member that didn’t want Lisa,” Cheek said at the meeting. “Believe it or not, everybody here wanted you. They said don’t worry about Moline, you’ll learn more.

“After she was here four months, I went and talked to every single department head. I went by myself. The only thing they had a problem with is she had too many meetings. They also said they learned a lot more about the city with more meetings. I would like to know how many of the department heads ever met with John in the 30 years he was here. Everyone I talked to said he never came around.

“The review should have been done six months ago. I wasn’t for her, but when she came in and gave her presentation, she blew me out of the water,” Cheek said.

Council considers new meeting structure

The council called the May 19 committee of the whole to collectively address the evaluation, and the chief selection process that typically fall under the personnel committee.

Council members Dockery and Peeters convened a personnel committee meeting May 7, but felt compelled to adjourn when Cheek arrived. Dockery said the presence of three council members made it a council quorum, which requires public notice and an agenda.

Since then, Cheek, Dockery and Peeters have talked supportively at council about giving up the personnel and other committees, and convening the entire council more often for discussion-only committee meetings like Wednesday’s.

The mayor on Wednesday acknowledged the city’s committee meetings have not complied with Iowa open meetings laws because agendas were not posted, and minutes were not kept.

The distinction has been acknowledged at previous council meetings, but Cheek persisted Wednesday in asking for committee meeting minutes.

“I’ve been requesting the minutes for those meetings. Denise, have you done that for me yet?” Cheek asked Benson.

“Mr. Cheek, are we going down that road again?” O’Boyle asked.

“I’m asking a question, because none of us know,” Cheek said.

O’Boyle responded: “The practice has been, historically, in this city, as long as I’ve been on, that committees that meet, and all the things we are doing now…”

“That’s the problem,” Cheek said.

“Excuse me, Mr. Cheek, I’m speaking,” O’Boyle said.

“You’re interrupting me, because you let me talk, and I’m asking a question of Denise,” Cheek said. “…Denise, have you gotten minutes for when they met?”

“We don’t take minutes,” Benson said.

“Thank you. That’s all I want to know,” Cheek replied.

Cheek warned that council members could be liable for individual fines.

Moments later, O’Boyle elaborated on the committee records. “We haven’t traditionally done that. We know that. It’s come to our attention that we should be doing that, and now, we do. We’re also doing a lot of things different. What do you want us to do, create something out of the clear blue air?”

Dockery on Wednesday said the entire council needs to be more involved.

“We’ve talked about committee of the whole meetings. Committees will talk about their topics in front of the whole council. That will stop some of the confusion and concerns,” he said.

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