A break down in trust: Secret investigations, closed door sessions, break between staff and commission precede city manager’s termination

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By Adam Strunk

When Newton commissioners handed down a 3-2 decision to terminate City Manager Randy Riggs at a May 10 meeting, some expressed agony over their decision, the loss of sleep, and hours of prayer to make it.

Two, Barth Hague and Kathy Valentine, verbally opposed the decision.

Riggs listened to the proceedings with the same stoic expression he always wore.

He then took time in his final staff report to thank employees.

“Employees should accept the accolades they deserve,” he said. “As the commissioners know, we have multiple positive, community-changing, economy-growing changes in the mix.”

With nothing more to discuss, the meeting ended in a stunned silence. Some staff members wiped away tears, while others proceeded across the room to shake Riggs’ hand and tell him goodbye.

FRONT-Riggs investigation 4

Since that evening’s meeting, Riggs’ dismissal has been greeted with surprise and questions from the community.

Unfortunately, the terms of Riggs’ termination include a gag order, preventing both Riggs and the commission from publicly commenting on the decision, outside of the city wishing to “go in a different direction.”

What we know is this: five city commissioners who were interviewed for this story—three former and two sitting—agreed that Riggs’ had overall positive annual evaluations throughout his career as Newton’s city manager.

The current commission has not ever formally evaluated Riggs and was in the process of completing an evaluation shortly before he was terminated.

The current commission did not fire him on May 10 because he committed a fraud or crime. He had not breached his fiduciary duty to the city or purposely acted against the city’s best interest.

Had he done such actions, the city could have fired him with cause and avoided paying a contractual $215,444 severance package that included sick pay and vacation time , as well as a year of his health insurance coverage.

Yet the question remains: Why would the city commission spend $215,444 on a contractually obligated severance package to terminate a long-time city manager with good formal evaluations?

Newton Now spent the last two weeks trying to find its readers a better answer than the city’s simple wish to go a different direction.

What we found were seven months of dealings behind closed doors, a taxpayer-funded private investigation into multiple city staff members and what some commissioners described as a breakdown in communication and trust between the commission and those the city employs.

Executive Sessions

In the last seven months leading up to Riggs’ termination, the commission held or voted to extend an executive session at least 35 times. Twenty-eight of those instances involved discussion related to personnel, and the commission spent more than 10 hours discussing staff behind closed doors. For context, in the prior seven months, the commission spent a total of 70 minutes in three executive sessions discussing staff.

During the fall, Newton Now quietly looked into two separate rumors about an imminent termination of a city employee.
The rumors came second and third hand out of executive sessions the commission was holding, and neither turned out to be true.

But city staff was on edge. It was no secret that something was up at city hall.

Newton Now talked to four of five sitting commissioners for the story. Leroy Koehn did not respond to an interview request.

No one stated a specific trigger for the flurry of executive sessions, which started in October, outside of looking into complaints coming from members of the community.

Mayor Glen Davis

Mayor Glen Davis said, as a member of the city commission, he takes complaints from citizens seriously, and the number of executive sessions the city held looking into complaints should be evidence of that seriousness.

“We had citizens come forward and talk to us,” Davis said. “We had complaints from ex-city employees.”

Davis didn’t provide details of the complaints.

He said some were expressed to him and added that some of those complaining brought forth documentation outlining their complaints.

Commissioners Hague and Valentine agreed with the account, though both said the complaints were not presented to them.

“They came to more seasoned commissioners,” Valentine said, in reference to the two sitting commissioners Davis and Koehn.

Hague said that many of the complaints the commission looked into during the time proved fruitless.

“Some of our commissioners hear a lot of talk from our community on a variety of things,” Hague said. “Some is real. Some is hearsay. At times, we as a commission have trouble distinguishing between the two.”

Private Investigation

The concern over the complaints against city staff, fruitful or not, progressed to the point that the commission hired a private investigator to look into the matters.

From Nov. 30, 2015, to Feb. 1, 2016, the city commission paid $8,742 to employ a private investigator from Encompass Resolution LLC to investigate city employees, according to information released by the city to Newton Now in accordance with the Kansas Open Records Act. Records available below:

Encompass Letter – redacted

Encompass Resolution invoice

No trace of a private investigation exists in meeting minutes, however. Commissioners took no action approving the matter in public session, either.

City Attorney Bob Myers provided a contract letter outlining an agreement to hire the firm at a rate of $235 an hour as well as a dated invoice provided by the firm requesting payment.

The Newton City Office redacted the name of the person originally under investigation listed in the contract agreement, because the name was protected as to guard employee privacy.

In explaining the redaction, Myers said that the investigation originally began with one employee and expanded in scope after the commission and the company agreed upon the contract.

From interviews with the commissioners, as many as four members of the city administration came under investigation.

The invoice showed that the investigator traveled to Newton on at least three occasions, meeting with the commission twice—on Dec. 11, 2015, and Feb. 1, 2016. No record of the Dec. 11 meeting exists in the official record of city meetings.

On Feb. 1, the investigator provided a report to the commission on her findings, according to the company’s payment invoice. She wasn’t listed as present in the meeting minutes. The payment invoice stated that the report she gave was verbal, meaning there’s no way of obtaining it as a public record.

Commissioner Kathy Valentine

Commissioner Kathy Valentine

 

Myers stated that the investigation found no misconduct from any of the employees it investigated. Hague corroborated the statement as did Valentine, who said the investigator adamantly presented her findings that “You don’t have anyone here that warrants being let go.”

Davis also agreed that the investigation found no official wrongdoing by city employees but added that the findings didn’t necessarily mean all of the complaints made were warrantless and said to “read in between the lines.”

Myers said he suggested going to an outside source to conduct the investigation to provide an objective view. He said that he floated the idea to the commission, which gave its approval.

Myers added that “under the city management form of government the city manager has authority to enter into contracts.” Myers said that authority is also delegated to department heads and, as the city of attorney, he has the authority to hire outside counsel, as the investigator was also an attorney.

Myers said such an action requires no public vote to approve, as do many expenditures the city makes.

Commissioners’ explanations on why they hired an outside source to conduct the investigation and kept it from the public varied.

Hague-barth

Commissioner Barth Hague

“I was in favor of it because so much of what was being scrutinized at the time was pure hearsay,” Hague said.

Hague added that he hoped an outside source would put to rest a variety of rumors other commissioners had been looking into.

“Honestly, we didn’t know what to do and what was fact,” Davis said of why the city looked for outside help.

Commissioner David Nygaard originally declined to comment for the story, saying the commission had made “a pact” to let Davis speak for them and to present a single voice on the whole situation.

He was sitting with Davis at Druber’s Donuts last Saturday, however, when Davis granted an interview. Nygaard explained that the commission wanted an objective source to look into employee complaints.

Commissioner David Nygaard

Commissioner David Nygaard

Nygaard said that doing such an investigation in-house would have led to biases, which would have been unfair to all involved. He said such a matter was kept out of the public realm due to consideration to city employees.

“We have to protect our employees,” he said. “We’re going to protect them.”

Davis said, in a perfect world, all word of the investigation would have stayed in executive session for the sake of city employees instead of being leaked.

“You weren’t supposed to be sitting here asking questions,” he said.

Hague and Valentine both agreed that the staff’s knowledge of the investigation likely wouldn’t help relationships between the two groups.

“In retrospect, we should have had a greater trust level with our city manager to carry on the investigation in that arena,” Valentine said. “It didn’t prove fruitful. Personally, it shows us we need a good relationship with city staff.”

Hague said the need for the private investigation represents, in part, a break in trust between some on the commission and city administrators.

“Spending the time on this has made staff relatively uneasy,” he said. “We’ve definitely got significant rebuilding to do.”

Employee Evaluations

On the record, Newton Now was unable to confirm if Riggs was one of the employees subject to the investigation.

Records involving personnel are often exempt from open records requests, and sitting commissioners couldn’t officially comment on the reasons for his termination. So we contacted five former city commissioners who worked with Riggs to discuss working with him, their annual performance evaluations of his job, and to provide perspective.

The three who chose to participate in the story, Jim Nickel, Raquel Thiesen and Kenneth Hall, all agreed that during their time on the commission they gave Riggs positive personal evaluations overall. Hague and Valentine, who have seen the evaluations, agreed with that assessment.

Thiesen, who sat on the commission for eight years, added that the commissioners took the evaluations seriously.

“It’s not like we just had a quick conversation that said, ‘Oh, yeah, Randy is the best ever, check and done,’” she said. “There was always a lot of thought put into the evaluation. And we were actually doing them at the time […] He was exceptional to work with. I think he truly understood integrity and professionalism.”

Nickel and Hall both echoed the sentiment.

“Randy is an excellent administrator, in my opinion,” Nickel said. “He’s not a politician. He’s not a real visible person. Sometimes that means you don’t make a lot of friends or support groups. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t find him difficult to deal with.”

Multiple people during the interview described Riggs’ demeanor and style as quiet, removed and someone more comfortable working in the background.

All three former commissioners went on the record as against the current commission’s decision because of their opinion of Riggs or the expenditure involved in his severance package.

“We had one of the best city managers in the State of Kansas,” Thiesen said. “And now we don’t. The disappointing thing is now we don’t have any reason why he is gone.”

It should be noted that, according to city minutes and a contract amendment for Riggs, Thiesen, Hall and Nickel, along with Commissioner Willis Heck and current Mayor Glen Davis sat on the commission that amended Riggs’ severance package on June 26, 2012, extending it from six months to a year.

June 26 Randy Riggs Contract

Riggs’ 2012 contract amendment. Click photo to enlarge.

Minutes from the meeting simply state that the motion passed and all commissioners were present except Hall.

On Thiesen’s part, she said she had no qualms about extending his severance package.

“There were never these negative gaps or deficiencies,” she said. “The commissions of the past made the right decisions at the time. I won’t apologize for any of the decisions I made regarding Randy, his performance or severance.”

Nickel said he had reservations but voted in favor.

“The discussion in our evaluation was that Randy wanted to boost that up to nine months,” Nickel said. “Glen said that he wanted to boost it up to 12 months.”

Nickel said that the motion passed unanimously.

“When you figure out there are three going to vote for it, you just as well not cause disharmony. I questioned it; another questioned it. I didn’t have any agenda to get rid of him. If you’re representing the city, you want to give away as little as possible. But you also want to have a happy employee that wants to work for you.”

Davis, in a later interview, refuted the claim that he ever argued to extend Riggs’ severance package or supported the move.

“No, never,” he said, adding that whoever claimed otherwise was lying.

Davis said he fought against Riggs’ severance package in a Feb. 26, 2013, meeting.

Bob Smyth, who served on the commission at that time, was present at Druber’s Donuts when Davis was interviewed and backed up Davis’ statement.

“Glen had his feet on the bricks the whole way,” he said.

Meeting minutes and a contract extension from that date indicate that the commission approved increasing Riggs’ base pay to $125,000, but the minutes make no mention of his severance package, though it’s possible that the debate came up in executive session.

Minutes state that Davis did vote against the increase, with the other four on the commission voting in favor.

Davis also voted against increasing Riggs’ salary in 2014, according to meeting minutes.

Information later provided by Myers backed up the record shown in the minutes.

Unfinished Business

Both Nickel and Thiesen lost re-election bids in 2015 and were part of the final commission to conduct a formal evaluation of Riggs.

The current commission pushed off a formal evaluation scheduled for 2015, as it had three new commissioners. Riggs’ contract included a piece that outlined an annual evaluation for him.

“Two of us had a past history with Riggs,” Davis said. “You can’t expect new commissioners to go on our word.”

Hague said a formal evaluation process continued to get pushed back. He said the city began the evaluation process for Riggs in 2016, however, and added that it ended shortly before Riggs was terminated.
“We weren’t given the opportunity to complete it,” he said. “There were other voices on the commission that felt ready to make the decision.”

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What does $215,444 buy?             6 Dog park construction contributions, priced at $36,000                                            4.8 concrete pads at the Girl Scout Little House priced at $44,800                                             4.1 Demolitions of the 815 N. Main St. Building priced at $52,000                                          1.86 mill decrease in property taxes. One mill generates around $115,000                                           .86 Splash Parks priced at $247,000                                             Cost information provided by previous reporting as well as the Newton City Office.

Davis said that two of the five commission members felt ready to make a decision on Riggs, explaining why the process wasn’t completed. Davis added that commission members expressed concerns to Riggs during his time on the commission.

“He [Riggs] was aware that the commission was not happy,” Davis added.

Valentine said the city needed to establish objectives and goals for Riggs, which she said were not a part of previous evaluations.

“You’re paying a city manager out of taxpayer dollars,” she said. “I wanted more accountability. He should have had the opportunity to say, ‘Yes’ or ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’ I felt like we had not gone far enough to determine the need to pay for such a severance package or make changes. I could not agree to that, because we had not done all we agreed to do.”

Moving Forward

The decision could cost the city much more than $215,444 after a year of Riggs’ health insurance and the additional interim staffing costs are factored in.

And time will tell if the commission’s decision to remove its sitting city manager and pay his severance package will turn out to be a positive move.

“It will with new leadership,” Davis said. “We will hire the right person. The city needs to come first.”
Davis said he respected Riggs as a person and he “was a very nice gentleman.”

For Davis, however, the right person for the job would be someone publicly involved with the city and its citizens.

“I would like to think people would know who our city manager is and he is involved in the community,” he said. “Basically, it boils down to communication and making sure the city commission has the facts we need to know.”
Davis said he would have liked to have seen better communication between city administration and the commission on recent issues such as the 815 Main St. building that the city demolished and the pouring of a parking lot constructed next to the Girl Scout little house, where concrete was installed instead of the asphalt millings the city commission approved.

“If there had been better communication, that would have never happened,” he said. “We approved millings, then we saw concrete there when we drove by.”

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Nygaard said it was important for the city to take its time and hire the best person for the City of Newton.
“He [Glen] and I sit on the same side of the street,” he said. “We’re both looking for an energetic person. That person can be a cheerleader and work with the community on a set of goals and objectives.”

Hague and Valentine both expressed a need to proceed together with other commission members but were unclear on the city’s “different direction.”

“I don’t really know what moving ahead means,” Hague said.

Hague expressed concerns of staff members possibly leaving the city after the incident—a concern Valentine shared.

“I want folks to know I’m eager to move forward, but I couldn’t and can’t say we’re going to move in a different direction,” Valentine said. “I know staff is still in the healing process. It behooves us to be patient. I’m personally stepping out to encourage these people. I appreciate what you do. I hope to get to know them better so I’m not basing what I think on hearsay, but you have to win the right to have their trust. Once that’s broken, that’s difficult to repair.”

No timeline was given on when the city would hire a new manager.