Sunday, July 22, 2007

Wollangk in the woodshed

City Manager Richard Wollangk's latest weekly newsletter starts out the way it usually does, with an obvious and upbeat observation about how delightful things are here in Oshkosh on the Water. Four pages later, there is this curt statement about what is planned at the end of Tuesday's Common Council meeting:

"Following the Workshop [on the Convention Center], Council Member McHugh has requested an Executive Session to discuss the performance of the City Manager."

Hold on to your wallets, Oshkosh, because whatever happens next is going to be expensive.

Option No. 1, which could be the most expensive, would be for the city manager to get a stern talking to from unhappy Council members and would elicit a promise to do better. In other words, there would be no substantive change at City Hall. The reason that this would be the most expensive option is simply that the city can no longer afford to continue with the status quo.

It's the Fox River that gave Oshkosh its start, and if there is anything that will keep Oshkosh from sliding into obscurity it is a bustling, redeveloped waterfront. Unfortunately the efforts to date to rebuild the city's core have been spectacularly unsuccessful. The Leach, 100 N. Main, the convention center--all of them are at the very least underperforming. (Opera House Square is nice, but it's not doing anything to contribute to the city's revenue picture.) And the Marion Road parcel has been lying fallow for way too long.

What the city seems good at is taking property off of the tax rolls; what it's not very good at is turning such land back into revenue producing real estate.

Option No. 2, which could be expensive for other reasons, would be an abrupt "regime change." Some experienced Council watchers say there are already five votes (at least) to fire Wollangk and expect those votes to be cast Tuesday night (or in the near future).

The reason that this would be expensive is that if the Council does not proceed carefully and with appropriate legal advice it is likely to have a lawsuit and/or a messy settlement on its hands. For all his flaws, Wollangk has been careful to involve the Council at critical times, albeit minimally and sometimes obscurely.

Don't forget: He DID alert Mayor Tower to the 100 N. Main foreclosure situation before the vote on the Waterfront project.

Option No. 3 is really any number of specific scenarios about what to do next. But all of them will involve spending more money.

If we accept the argument that the status quo isn't working and the argument that a new kind of leadership is needed at City Hall, someone will have to make the argument to taxpayers that they are going to have to pony up some more money to attract the kind of executive talent that can push the city's redevelopment efforts forward.

I just came back from a trip to the East Coast, and one of the places I stopped was my hometown, Baltimore. Like Oshkosh, Baltimore was built because of its access to water, and unlike Oshkosh Baltimore has turned its waterfront assets into a bustling center of tourism, business and convention activity.

It's called the Inner Harbor, and it seems to just keep on growing. I remember when it was mostly tumbledown wharves and empty streets. An awful lot of the credit for the transformation has to go to one man, William Donald Schaefer, who as mayor of Baltimore and then governor and later comptroller of the state of Maryland, spent years making his vision of a redeveloped waterfront become a reality.

Along the way, be bumped a lot of shoulders, bruised a lot of egos, took a lot of criticism and threw a lot (a whole lot) of temper tantrums.

If fixing Oshkosh's problems were easy, it would already be done. But that's not the case.

Redeveloping the city is going to take someone like Schaefer: focused, unafraid of controversy, supremely self-confident, someone who is also smart, energetic and capable of turning on the charm when necessary.

The person in Oshkosh who comes the closest to matching that description is Richard Wells, the chancellor at UW Oshkosh. There are many things on which he and I disagree, but I have to concede that he is moving the university forward in the face of the same kind of complacency and the fear of change that have bogged down the city's redevelopment efforts.

The problems for Oshkosh in getting someone like Wells are twofold: sticker shock and culture shock.

Wells is currently making about 70 percent more than the Oshkosh city manager and came here as the result of a national search. Will Oshkosh voters be willing to go along with a national search for a new city manager and be willing to underwrite the cost of attracting top talent?

The culture shock will hit the Common Council particularly hard. If they are unhappy with Dick Wollangk's performance, wait until they are trying to deal with a big-ego city manager who not only keeps them in the dark about what is really going on but has the savvy to develop, and use, an independent power base.


Anonymous babblemur said...

Nice analysis, Miles!

I have been wanting to post something similar but you have captured a lot of the issues that I have.

I feel that we need a change at City Hall - best case scenario involves two or three resignations and/or retirements to clear the way for a new crew to come in and move Oshkosh toward its fullest potential. The current crew seems to have their hands tied by I don't know what - and the waterfront properties of Oshkosh sit as post-industrial wastelands because of it.

We need fresh eyes to come in and implement a vision for the city. I feel that the city is way too obsessed with initial "tax value" of properties, and as a result attempts to force construction of high tax value properties that aren't natural fits (100 N. Main for example). If the City steps up and takes possession of the available waterfront property, south side as well as north side, and creates something appealing and exciting that draws people in, adjoining property taxes will rise to meet demand.

This means a boardwalk, riverwalk, parks, outdoor markets, boat stops and marinas - the kind of things that attract people to the area. A fish market would be cool if we could actually eat the fish out of this water. When the people are there, business grows around it to sell stuff to them. When business is good, tax values go up, and the city sees the revenue.

It seems to me that the development we have been seeing over the last 5 years is forced and artificial.

Funny you mention the Opera House Park - which is a treasure down town but has no tax revenue. It is the presence of treasures such as this that increase the tax value of the adjoining properties. Imagine doing that all along the Fox River, north side and south, and the "trickle down" tax growth that would result one or two blocks off the river.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say this community will NEVER go for a strong independent, expensive city manager...and I'm afraid the majority of the council certainly isn't looking for someone like that to lead the city. I predict if Wollangk goes, the council will hire someone very weak who will kowtow to their every whim...I've lived in Oshkosh for many years and I'm still waiting for a leader to emerge somewhere...

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is going to be an interesting decision. I believe Wollangk is unable to make any decision without some Council Members accusing him of not keeping them in the decision making process and he has attempted to protect his career by doing exactly what the Council wants. It is odd that his job is in jeopardy for doing what his boss(essssssssssss) want him to do (not make any decisions without their approval). Oshkosh is idle because of the lack of a clear leader. Since the Council has wanted our City Manager to perform his job this way, they are to blame for the current state of Oshkosh. I think Wollangk could do a very good job IF the Council let up on the reigns and had the courage to let the City Manager be a city manager. The question is, do they have the courage or do they just want to whine. Let the guy do his job the way he should be able to do it, and in a year re-evaluate his performance.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous babblemur said...

If you consider the City Manager as an employee, and the Common Council as his/her Supervisor(s), then I would suggest the following:

If the City Manager is doing a Great Job, the Council backs off and trusts the City Manager. The CM doesn't need close supervision. However, if the City Manager has a history of poor performance and questionable judgement then the Council must exercise close oversight and supervision of the CM, or fire him and hire a new one.

The Council clearly feels Wollangk needs oversight right now. This doesn't mean a new City Manager would need the same oversight.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Babblemur I agree with you to a point. My issue with the Council is I do not think they ever gave him any leeway and let him do his job as he should be able to do it. There are Council members that will not allow him to do his job in any other way other than the task list they created for him. Hence, I do not think we are really able to tell what kind of job Mr. Wollangk is really capable of if truly given the chance. I think they should allow him the chance to demonstrate what he could do if given the real chance.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dick Wollangk is a good lieutenant, but lacks the skills of being a General. Oshkosh needs a Patton right now and all we have is a Beetle Bailey.

6:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problem is previous councils have let Dick and his staff do whatever they want. (See Bill Castle). That is why we are in the mess we are today. This is what you get when you hire an office manager to run a city.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We must guard against movement to put someone like Paul Esslinger in this position though. That would be considerably worse than what we have right now.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need a professional manager not a council member re-tread like Bill Castle or Jon Dellantio. These guys would be no different than Dick W. who was also a ex-council guy. We need somebody strong that can hold there ground to the whole "chamber" crowd and do whats right for the average Oshkosh working guy.

4:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:59 I'm sorry but you just sound dumb. Please tell me (and no I am not a businessman) where the "average Oshkosh working guy" would be without the chamber.

8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The public preception is that the Chamber Crowd have a very defined agenda. This agenda is focused at whatever is in the best interest for their corporate members. The preception is that they do not promote what is in the best interest of the average general "Joe Lunchbucket" type taxpayer. This may be wrong, but as the saying goes, "preception is reality". 8:58, to answer your question, that I believe is what 4:59 was trying to get at.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous squanto said...

Someone like Richard Wells as City Manager?

Hmmm, UWO is featured in the Milw Journal Sentinel for a student loan scandal while he the chancellor. True, it wasn't technically illegal in Wisconsin as it was in other states but it was fairly unethical and UWO worked overtime to cover it up.

Next, UWO is featured in the same newspaper about a banking deal that largely tags students with higher fees. Oh yeah, Wells sits on the board of that bank in a paid position.

Further, UWO is constructing an ill-conceived parking ramp that parking fees can't/won't reasonably pay for.

Lastly, UWO has fallen in the US World News ranking and his response to faculty is that it doesn't really matter.

This is the type of leadership you want for the city?

This seems to be what the city has now! Secrecy,unethical deals, ill-fated development and an uncaring attitude toward the city back sliding in the eyes of citizens.

Can't we do better?

The problem I see no one addressing here or elsewhere has to do with the classical city manager concept of governence. The city manager is here to run the city, i.e. financially and administratively. The elected council is there to provide direction and goals in response to citizen needs/wants/desires and to be the forward thinkers. The city manager and city staff shouldn't, in the classical city manager model, be the folks that chart the course for the city to follow, that is up to the council. The problem is that the city manager and staff have HAD to chart the course recently because of inept council members stretching back the last 20+ years.

Don't blame Wollangk for 100 Main St. It was stupid to require, and this came from the council, that there be apartments and condo's there. It didn't work? Go figure. One clue as to the viability, or lack thereof, of the project is that no LOCAL bank would finance it. Look at the other proposed 100 Main St projects over the years? Remember the ice rink? How about the restaraunt that was going to be Wisconsin's largest? Hoo boy, those were good ideas!

If the council leads, and I really think this council as it structured is the best in the past 20+ years, I think Wollangk can do well. The only changes that need to be made at city hall need to start and end with city planning department (get rid of all 'em.

It is time for the council to lead and move forward with real work and not spend time working on installing sidewalks in front of a couple dozen houses that don't want them!

10:48 AM  
Blogger Miles Maguire said...


I wouldn't say that I am exactly a fan of Chancellor Wells. If I had to rate him as a chancellor, I would say he has been a great real estate developer.

In addition to the parking ramp (which certainly will be paid for by parking fees, one way or another), he is also responsible for building the wellness center, acquiring various adjacent properties and moving ahead on a new academic building (while also pushing his idea for a senior residential compound affiliated with the university).

Those things take drive and will and vision (and not necessarily a strong moral compass).

I agree with you about the quality of the current Council being pretty good, but there is a built in structural problem that will always give the advantage to staff.

Council members are part-timers and short-timers. Staffers are full-time and hoping to hang on to their jobs long enough to collect a pension.

No matter how much vision a part-time Council provides, it will still be up to the full-time staff to do the work.

A question someone raised with me the other day was this: Why didn't Wollangk tell the Council about the foreclosure? He must have known that Council members were unhappy with him about previous nondisclosures.

The best answer I have is that he is not constitutionally able to deal with bad news, a fairly common trait in this part of the world. But when it comes to large-scale development projects, which is what the city has to be, setbacks are inevitable, and you have to have the personality to roll with that.

In many respects Dick has been a fine city manager, and a bargain at the price.

But the city needs more (from him, or from a successor).

Can the city get on track given its current salary structure and form of governance? I am skeptical, but happy to be proven wrong.

1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

US Department of Labor Website lists:

2004 Median annual salary –
City Manager $88,695.00

Given Oshkosh’s size, it looks like Dicks pay isn’t too out-of-line.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If he was qualified to be a city manager. He is not.

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree. I read that a "professional" city manager will cost us MUCH more in salary. That website says that it really shouldn't. The median salary is not too much more than we pay Dick. We should demand more for our money!!

8:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is said when some people give their opinions without any understanding the City manager's limits of authority as established by the City Council but then hold him responsible for everything. If only the shoe was on the other foot.

7:39 AM  
Blogger jody said...

Miles wrote - "if the Council does not proceed carefully and with appropriate legal advice it is likely to have a lawsuit..."

You really need to drop that IF part. Whatever your lawyers say he'll be able to find some other lawyer(s) to give it a go or at least see how far they can take it before giving up. That still costs extra $ in terms of the city needing legal representation, and still means closed sessions to discuss the situation and angered citizens and chaos within city departmental ranks blah blah blah.

A point I have tried to make elsehwere is to try to minimize the "Saddam factor" when yo deiced stuff with this guy. You know - Things will be so much better once Saddam is removed. The people will greet us with joy. A bright future is assured if only we can remove The Bad Man. Tra la, tra la.

That comparison is exagerated but apt - there will quite possibly be variables that are NOT forseen that could be quite unpleasant.

YOU ARE HUMILIATING THIS GUY. He hates you. (I do assume, if he's human) All of you who talk about his dismissal with such hope and dreams for a bright tomorrow without him. His family and neighbors read stuff like this. How pissed off might he be? Gosh, maybe he'll sue. Do the lawyers have a Humiliation-o-meter that can rate a guy's liklihood to sue? Is their judgement fail proof? (And will they represent the citry in prolonged negotiations if he DOES sue, thereby lining their own pockets? I mean THEY will be the ones "most familiar with the case", it will make sense to retain THEM. Eh?)

If W. has proven years of service and is dismissed by a political body shortly after an election, and if the previous councils have not been documenting the livin' crap out of W. and padding his file with nazi war atrocities, then I'd put some legal funds aside. What this guy's employee file looks like is something to be thought about before you go all happy picking his replacement model's features and upgrades. If he has years of good reviews and then a sudden downturn...hmm

And even just within these comments here you can see that the town is not exactly of one mind. So have some fun I guess.

But for sure, if I was W. I'd be talking to a lawyer NOW and I'd be documenting any behavior that might prove helpful to me in case I needed it. Any stuff that any councilor might ever have said that might seem "personal" or "grudge-like". He may have been doing this all along - W. is familiar with personnel procedures I assume? Knows how to fire people, document them for easy removal? Part of his job to know how people are ushered out? Maybe W. will be unusually able to defend himself. He's been doing this for years, the council is newbies and people from other professions.
People make it sound so easy. Topple the Saddam statue and dance in the streets. Okay sure, I guess...Party on then Wayne.

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jody, this is an at-will situation and Wollangk's contract allows for termination as well as non-renewal. He'd be hard pressed to win a lawsuit if the terms of his contract are followed.

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To those who believe a lawsuit could be forthcoming, please tell us on what basis? The city manager's contract allows for his termination OR non-renewal. If they terminate him and do so according to the terms of the contract they have with him, he has no grounds for a lawsuit and would be laughed out of court if he tried. We needto stop cowering in our boots everytime the mere threat of litigation rears its ugly head.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous babblemur said...

There are many ways an employee can sue for wrongful termination even if the termination scenario is in a contract.

If the employee believes that s/he was terminated based on race, for example. Or there is the "whistle=blower" rules that Bush is trying to repeal. Or if he was fired out of retaliation for some non-performance related situation. People don't need much of a case to sue.

These come to mind, there may be others.

His contract, I am told, is through Dec. 2008.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does he have a contract, or is it "at will" like I hear people talk about?

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone can sue for anything; it doesn't guarantee success at trial. The fact is his contract allows the council to discontinue his employment with 6 months notice essentially. I don't believe they even have to have a reason to let him go. He serves at their pleasure. That makes him an at-will employee.

10:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Commentary: Attorney's advice on Bain perplexing

By Stephen Hintz

The attorney advising the Common Council in its discussions about the status of the city manager has come up with a legal interpretation requiring Councilor Bryan Bain to remove himself from any discussions about termination because Bain previously had stated that Oshkosh needed a new city manager.

What is the basis of this interpretation? Clearly, it is not in state statute chapter 64, which establishes council-manager government.

First, the city council by state statute has the authority to hire and terminate the city manager. This means the entire city council.

Second, by state statute, the city manager can be dismissed for cause (defined as willful misconduct in office, misfeasance, or malfeasance) or without cause. The city manager thus is an at-will employee who serves at the pleasure of the council. The only obligation of the city council is to provide specific reasons in writing for the dismissal, 60 days notice, and an opportunity for the city manager to present his response in a public forum. The specific reasons do not have to rise to any level of seriousness or meet the cause standard as defined by court cases.

There are instances when the city council functions as a quasi-judicial body such as considering a recommendation to revoke a city license. It is understandable why a public comment on the case by a councilor might disqualify the councilor from hearing the case. However, in the instance of deliberating about the city manager, the council is not acting as a quasi-judicial body. It is the employer making a decision about an at-will employee.

The interpretation by the attorney seems to suggest that the discussions of the council essentially constitute a hearing for the city manager to evaluate evidence. State statutes mention nothing about a hearing, in either open or closed session, or an appeals process. The city manager does not get to argue his case in front of the council. He simply is entitled to know the reasons for dismissal and to have an opportunity to publicly respond.

I do not believe that there is any legal connection between prior comments by a council member and council deliberations. By barring a council member from participation, the interpretation is improperly restricting the legal authority of the council member.

Let us look at several situations. What if a slate of candidates campaigned on the dismissal of the city manager and they won. Does it make any sense that they would be disqualified from participating in a discussion about termination? What if the slate included all of the council members? Would this mean that the council could not discuss termination of the manager?

What if several councilors publicly indicated that they thought that termination was a bad idea. Shouldn't they also be barred from participating in council discussions on termination by the same logic that kept Bain from participating?

We need a better legal explanation than we have received.

Stephen Hintz is the former Mayor of Oshkosh and common council member. He is retired from the UW Oshkosh faculty where he as Director of the Masters of Public Affairs program, Chair of the Department of Public Affairs, and Associate dean of the College of Letters and Science. He is a partner in Public Administration Associates, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in local government recruitment and management studies and an acknowledged expert in local government, organizational theory, and intergovernmental relations.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kent Monte continues to claim on his blog that Richard Wollangk is not an at-will employee. Mr. Monte seems to think that the mere existence of a contract means the city manager is not an at-will employee. It is apparent by his claim that he does not have the first damn clue what an at-will employee is, nor does he have any desire or ability to realize that others no more than he.

NOLO defines at-will employment this way: "The right of employers to fire employees for any reason, or for no reason at all. It also gives employees the legal right to quit their jobs at any time for any reason."

Legal Match defines it this way: "Grammatically speaking, the term at will should be hyphenated, as in at-will employment. However, because not everybody knows that, we omit the hyphen to make it easier for visitors to find this article in a Web search.

In other words, at will employment means that employees may generally quit their jobs at any time, for any, no or even unfair reasons.

By the same token, employers may generally fire or layoff employees at any time, for any, no or even unfair reasons. (That's the inference of the saying, "I serve at the pleasure of the board of directors.")"

You can find a history of at-will employment in the United Stated on the World Wide web and here is what it has to say on the matter: " In its narrowest sense, the doctrine of at-will employment only speaks to when an employment contract can be terminated: the contract can be terminated at-will of either party, i.e., at any time. A separate issue is why (i.e., for what reasons) the employment contract can be properly terminated. From the beginning, the concept of at-will employment meant that the employment contract could be terminated for any reason by either party."

Clearly, when an employee can be let go for cause or without cause, essentially for any reason, they are in an at-will employment situation.

Now, let's review one of the clauses in the city manager's contract that specifically addresses the issue of termination. It reads as follows:

"2.2 In the event Employee is terminated by the Council during the term of this agreement and Employees is willing and able to perform his duties under this agreement, then in that event, Employer agrees to pay employee a lump sum cash payment equal to six (6) month aggregate salary and benefits. Employee shall also be compensated for appropriate earned sick leave, vacation, holidays and other earned and accrued benefits to the date of termination."

The next section of the contract speaks specifically to the subject of termination for neglect of duty, malfeasance or misfeasance. The reason for the 2 sections is to lay out the penalties for termination during the contract term. Simply because he has a contract does not mean he gets to remain in the city's employ for the duration of the contract; and the fact that he can be let go any time means he is an at-will employee.

Anyone who doesn't recognize this fact is either not thinking clearly or is a complete idiot. Or does it make him a liar because he continues to say something that's not true?

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ugly question no one seems to want to talk about is this: If the council gets rid of Dick Wollangk, who are they going to put in his place on a temporary basis to run the city? Probably not one of the staff since those individuals also seem to be marked as "needing to be replaced". So, who??? This is an important question to be answered.

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Bill Freuh went. The Public Works Director stepped in for a little while (Jerry Konrad) so maybe they'll have Dave Patek do the same. It's only for a little while and well worth getting rid of the dead wood at city hall (Wollangk, Kinney, Kraft)

8:12 AM  

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