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Whether to undertake a massive house cleaning or simply tidy up the city's leadership staff is a decision every new mayor must make.
The process can be a nail-biter for the dozens of executives, department heads and managers who serve at the pleasure of the city's top elected official — they can be terminated at any time, even without cause. It also can be expensive for the taxpayers if the political sword is wielded without sound discretion.
Under a city ordinance adopted in 1998 and amended in 2004, certain officials — namely department directors and those who report directly to the mayor — may receive severance pay if they are fired for reasons other than malfeasance.
Depending on their level of responsibility, some may be eligible to receive as much as seven months' salary if they are "separated," or fired. For instance, an administrator making $100,000 annually might be eligible for $50,000 to $60,000 in severance, before taxes and withholdings. If a mayor sees fit to overhaul his staff, sizeable costs can accumulate as casualties mount.
"Their jobs could turn over any day," Suzette Denslow, chief of staff for Mayor Dwight C. Jones, says of the administrators who serve at the pleasure of the mayor. "My job could turn over any day."
In the case of former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, who campaigned on a promise to clean up the "cesspool of corruption and inefficiency" in City Hall, nearly every sitting executive was sent packing — most of whom had several years of employment under their belts when they were released.
A 2005 City Council inquiry into the amount of severance paid out during the first nine months of Wilder's term found that at least 18 high-level administrators left City Hall in that period, according to a Style Weekly report. The price tag: About $955,000 in severance and vacation pay. Patrick Roberts, the Wilder liaison who reported those figures to council, said the administration saved $814,000 in unfilled city positions during the same period, however — for a net cost of $114,000.
Jones, a Baptist minister and former state legislator who began a four-year term at the city's helm in January, is proceeding more judiciously so far, according to Denslow. Respecting individuals' service as well as the value of their operational knowledge is paramount, she says.
"The long-term goal is to have the right people in the right positions," even if those are the same ones currently occupying the jobs, she says. "This administration and this mayor understand the importance of continuity of services. You try to set up a system that is based on merit and not, ‘We can and therefore we will turn over these positions.' "
The majority of the city's more than 4,000 employees are termed as "classified" workers. That means they are subject to formal personnel rules that include guidelines for progressive discipline and a legal right to appeal certain decisions to a 10-member, City Council-appointed personnel board. "Unclassified" employees, on the other hand, are more vulnerable — they are appointed to their positions and can be dismissed for any reason. And while the city code allows them to receive severance pay, Human Resources Director Tyrone Jackson insists it is paid only at the discretion of the city official or panel that appointed them to their jobs.
As of early February, just four of Wilder's closest aides had left city employment: Isaac Graves, a deputy policy advisor who also is Wilder's nephew; Rita Henderson, director of minority business enterprise; Kim Neal, senior policy advisor; and Linwood Norman, press secretary.
Henderson, Neal and Norman each received two months' pay walking out the door, according to results of a Richmond magazine request for records under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. For Henderson that amounted to $18,454 while Neal got $17,730 and Norman $16,113. Whether Graves received any severance is unclear; he is a classified employee but city spokesman Michael Wallace cited personnel matters including a contract-dispute settlement as reasons for denying access to any severance records related to him.
Although the recently exiting officials received only two months' severance, the 2005 inquiry by City Council suggests that terminated officials were granted the maximum payout allowable — up to seven months in some cases — under Chief Administrative Officer William Harrell, who resigned from the job in March 2007.
Jackson says such cushions are "definitely not guaranteed. We don't have contracts with our unclassified employees." Compensation and benefits for those workers are outlined in offer letters that are subject to change at any time, he says.
Moving forward, Jones has instructed all executives to complete performance agreements based on their understanding of their roles and operational goals, according to Denslow. He will review those plans, meet with each executive and then decide whether he or she is an appropriate match for the job and his vision for the city, she says.
"We have no master list or game plan for having all of this ironed out," Denslow says, adding that theoretically the current leadership could remain unchanged. "The upside is the process is very fair. It is methodical. It is performance-based. The downside is it is a slow process."
She adds that the administration understands the potential costs of severing large numbers of executives and directors, but is more focused making sure the best qualified person is in each job. "We are not considering the cost of severance" as part of the leadership strategy, Denslow says.
The city's highest appointed position — that of chief administrative officer — is being treated the same as other executives, according to Denslow. The acting CAO, Christopher Beschler, is a former executive with Yankee Gas Company in Connecticut who joined the city as director of public utilities in January 2006. Wilder named him to the chief administrative position in August 2008 following the abrupt resignation of Sheila Hill-Christian.
City Council President Kathy Graziano, who began her first council term in January 2005 at the same time Wilder was taking office, says that initially council did not pay close attention to the cost of severance payouts as City Hall underwent a house cleaning four years ago.
"Most of council felt that Wilder was there to save the city," she says, explaining it took about nine months for council to look into the matter. "I think that we probably didn't give it the proper scrutiny that it needed."
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article's author, Bill Farrar, is a former city employee and served as press secretary to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder starting in May 2005. He was transferred to another unclassified position in November 2005 and was "separated" from city service in November 2006. He received seven months' pay as severance.