Archive for Thursday, June 8, 2000

How does city leave Harlow mess behind?

June 8, 2000

The community has heard the allegations. It has listened closely to the political scuffling and chosen whom to believe. Simply put, someone is not being honest about what really took place that night in executive session.

But that's old news.

Still, it's worth analyzing because of the state of disarray the city appears to currently occupy.

The tumultuous three weeks started with the firing of the city superintendent, which led to a public outpouring of love and support for him. That, in turn, led to dissension among council members, one of whom accused another of strong-arming him into a vote to remove the superintendent from office.

The issue reached its crescendo last Wednesday night when the same council that voted 4-1 to remove Bill Harlow and eliminate his position voted 4-1 to reinstate him. By the way, there were about 40 screaming community members affecting the decision.

Only in Eudora? You have to wonder, but three weeks into the saga, here's where we are:

The city council sits blinded by large quantities of egg in the face after having caved to public sentiment in rehiring a man it never wanted in the first place.

The mayor, accused of orchestrating the action against Harlow, must now listen to talk of a recall against him.

"If they want to have a recall election, they can have it," said Mayor Fred Stewart. "If I don't win, I don't win."

The community looks untrustingly upon an administration with huge issues the annexation of the land west of town among them facing it in the not-so-distant future.

And, the city superintendent, who claims he only wants to work without the council looking over his shoulder on every decision, now must consider whether he can come back in the current environment or pursue a lawsuit against the city for what he considers to be his wrongful ouster.

This week, The Eudora News attempts to assess where the issue stands and what the city and council face in the future.

'Part-time' politicians

Tuesday morning Harlow and his attorney met with City Attorney Gerry Cooley and council president Willene Blackburn, whose presence is rather head-scratching. It makes you wonder if retaining Harlow truly was the objective since she was the only council member to vote against Harlow each time.

This unusual meeting allowed the rest of the council an opportunity to reflect on the events of the last few weeks.

"It's regrettable the way this has all happened," said council member Rex Burkhardt.

Burkhardt and Pat Dardis were the swing votes for last week's amazing turnaround. A lot more communication by the council from the start, Burkhardt said, might have prevented the entire episode.

Less communication on the streets might not have hurt either.

Tom Pyle has taken some flak from other council members for telling what happened in the May 10 executive session, which was minutes before Harlow found himself without a job. But Pyle wasn't the first to speak out of turn.

In January, Mayor Fred Stewart reportedly told workers at Casey's General Store that Harlow would not be reappointed five months later.

"I go into Casey's to get coffee," Stewart said Monday. "I don't know if I said it or didn't say it. I might have."

Burkhardt and Dardis said they didn't necessarily support the removal of Harlow's position as much as they were in favor of the city moving in the direction of a city administrator to oversee Eudora's daily operations

"We're part-time politicians," Burkhardt said. "Most of us don't have time during the day to oversee the city. We talked about the need for a city manager. It was a very brief discussion."

Obviously, too brief.

What was the council's plan?

In the removal of Harlow, it appears the council never discussed who would run the city in his absence. Stewart took heat for occupying Harlow's desk and driving a city vehicle while running errands for the city, but his presence, while necessary, pointed out the major flaw of the council in taking this action.

There was no plan in place.

Two weeks after Harlow's removal, a storm hit Eudora, causing electrical problems and fallen trees throughout the city. A week later, a sewer backed up and ruined the basement of a Fir Street home. Stewart was left literally picking up the pieces.

"I've put a lot of time into this city," said Stewart, who has since given back the city vehicle after much too much, he said, was made of him driving it. "I've poured my heart and soul into Eudora."

It's a thankless job. And the pay isn't very good, either. Still, if Stewart hadn't been in Harlow's desk, these problems might have been more severe. However, was Stewart truly the council's stopgap measure for eliminating Harlow's position or was it lucky it had a retired mayor with some time on his hands?

Would future Eudora mayors, too, be expected to give up their means of gainful employment to run the city's maintenance departments in addition to running city errands for things like manhole covers?

Who were these responsibilities supposed to fall to?

This was a case of the council leaping before it looked.

Need for communication

"If something might be changed, it needs to be talked about a few months down the road," Dardis said. "This council needs to discuss issues in more detail. This situation points out that fact."

Dardis said a city administrator is the right way to go, but he is not certain Eudora has enough in its budget for both an administrator and a superintendent. That was his reason for his original vote.

"After re-evaluating the situation and hearing the community input, maybe it's not time to do that," Dardis said. "Eventually, we should go to that change of structure, but we have to do it when the time is right."

So when will the time be right?

Change is never accepted with open arms, but Eudora will never be ready to move forward until its city council is ready to communicate. It needs to thoroughly discuss among itself ways to improve the city. It needs to devise solid plans from start to finish in implementing action.

And, it needs to communicate expectations to city workers through updated job descriptions, periodic written evaluations and good constructive conversation.

"We need to go in that direction," said Dan Gregg, the only member of the city council to vote in Harlow's behalf both times. "We need to let our workers know what we expect from them."

Most important, it needs to then sit back and allow city workers to do the job to the best of their abilities. The truest sign of good leaders comes in the hiring of good people, who are allowed to do their job without fear of being second-guessed.

It's the council's job to provide the city managers with everything necessary for Eudora to run as a well-oiled machine.

Set up to fail?

The mayor maintains that the city was "not getting enough productive work out of Harlow," which was his reason for recommending and supporting the superintendent's dismissal.

"The council has changed its mind. I know I haven't changed mine," he said. "I still feel the same way."

Stewart said the city needs to upgrade its electrical lines a major undertaking he believes the city superintendent needs to make a priority. There are also places citywide needing sewer improvements and sidewalks that the superintendent should get fixed before Stewart will be convinced the city is getting the most out of Harlow.

The mayor estimated the electrical upgrades alone would cost the city about $1 million, which has not yet been budgeted and likely won't be budgeted any time in the near future.

"I don't see it happening," Stewart said.

In other words, if Harlow's job depends on getting these projects completed and the city isn't willing to give him the financial support necessary to do the job, it would appear the city has put Harlow in a position to fail.

The council does the city and Harlow no favors in bringing him back with expectations beyond what he can reasonably achieve. By giving him his job back, the council merely placates the community. But the truth is,

Harlow and the city are no better off with him in an impossible job. Our read is he was foolish to take this job offer.

If the expectations are clearly expressed and he is given the resources necessary to succeed, any qualified superintendent can meet the challenges. However, Bill Harlow should also take close notice of why the city council eliminated his position in the first place and step up his team's performance.

Otherwise, we'll be right back here next May with a bigger issue in a volatile election year.

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