A late addition to the agenda Tuesday resulted in the resignation of City Manager David Mercier – after the new City Council, in its first meeting, asked for him to quit.
The amended agenda, which appeared shortly before the meeting started, referenced a motion consideration for “personnel matters” – with no other explanation or prior notice. The topic was taken up after new Council Member Tom Towey was appointed to mayor in a 5-2 vote. Gary Schimmels was then appointed deputy mayor.
New Council Member Bob McCaslin then made a motion to ask for the resignation of Mercier in a “no-fault” separation for the “convenience of the city.” The action was then seconded by another newcomer to the council, Dean Grafos.
The request – which stunned many in the packed council chambers – received vehement protests from Council Members Bill Gothmann and Rose Dempsey along with some city employees and members of the public.
“I would move we postpone this until next week,” Gothmann told the council. “None of our constituents have been notified that this has been on the agenda. Are we going to have an open council discussion or a closed discussion?”
McCaslin responded that it was “an open meeting” and the “issue was before the public.”
Gothmann said there are “thousands of citizens” who would not get the opportunity to comment. Gothmann and Dempsey were then outvoted 5-2 to delay the vote for a week.
Dempsey said the council – which is now dominated by a group that campaigned under the banner of “Positive Change” – was “shooting the messenger” for policies such as the controversial Sprague-Appleway Revitalization Plan that the previous council championed.
“I feel we have one of the best city managers around,” she said. “I do not support this.”
Darla Arnold, an employee of Spokane Valley, said a city of 89,000 citizens deserved “some kind of acknowledgement why this is a good idea.” Towey said the city now has “a new council” with a different agenda.
“The citizens told us the direction they want us to go by their vote,” Towey said, who added that “Mr. Mercier approached us, knowing the council would go in another direction.”
In an interview later, Mercier would not confirm whether or not that was the case.
“I very much understand that a city manager is an at-will employee of the City Council,” he said. “We live in a democratic system.”
Before the decision was made, former council candidate Jennie Willardson said it was “time for a change.” But the city’s first mayor, Mike DeVleming, said the city would be taking on a huge financial burden by going through a new search and hiring process for a new manager – not to mention continuing to pay Mercier, as per his contract, for work he will not be doing.
“I don’t envy your position,” DeVleming told the council. “To go right off the bat and make a major decision like this astounds me. Are you aware of the costs? For a group that touts saving money, this is a big chunk of change.”
While campaigning, the Positive Change candidates criticized the fact Mercier lives out of the city limits and his salary.
“There was all this negativity,” said Patty Bischoff, another city employee, who added, “The majority of our citizens did not vote.”
Dick Behm, a Sprague Avenue businessman who supported incorporation, said he “did not have a problem” with the council’s decision but its haste.
“I do have a problem with you not notifying the citizens of the Valley,” Behm said.
Schimmels – who has been on the council since its inception, approved Mercier’s hiring seven years ago and campaigned as a member of Positive Change for his re-election – said he was “not in on” the discussions to ask for Mercier’s resignation.
“Irregardless, (Mercier’s leaving) would happen down the road,” he said.
After the council took its vote, with Gothmann and Dempsey voting no, Mercier tendered his resignation.
“As I take my leave, it was my distinct pleasure to serve in the formative years of the city of Spokane Valley,” he said. “The staff did terrific work, even under very, very difficult circumstances.”
Mercier then left the room, and many city employees fought back tears.
Mercier has been placed under paid administrative leave until Feb. 5, and
Deputy City Manager Mike Jackson will be acting city manager.
Mercier came to Spokane Valley after a stint as city manager in Battleground, Wash., after the council reviewed over 150 candidates in 2003.
After the meeting, Diana Wilhite – who was replaced on the council by new member Brenda Grassel – said she was surprised the council would take such a step when “our community wasn’t there” to comment.
This was, however, the first council meeting videotaped by Community Minded Television, and it will be broadcast over Comcast channel 14 next Monday at 7:30 p.m.
Towey – a former supermarket manager and graduate of West Valley High School – was nominated to the position of mayor, as the practice under the council-manager form of government, by McCaslin. He was supported by all council members except Dempsey and Gothmann.
Dempsey nominated Gothmann for mayor, but he did not receive the majority vote.