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Tape reveals City Hall showdown

April 16, 2009
Sarah Day — Staff Writer

WINNEBAGO - If the public thought the open portion of the March 10 Winnebago City Council meeting was intense, the closed session was worse.

The council this week approved releasing the closed session audiotape on the advice of the city attorney, who said closing the meeting had been a violation of state law.

The heated discussion in March focused on budget cuts, with council members Dana Gates and Chris Ziegler saying City Administrator Jennifer Feely had misled the council.

Feely, meanwhile, was frustrated and disheartened with the council because she felt she had no support.

At that point, Councilman Bob Weerts called for a closed meeting. Mayor Randy Nowak agreed, citing "personnel reasons."

Away from the public, Weerts started the closed meeting discussion: "There's something going on here that I don't like."

He said that in February the council had approved cuts proposed by Feely, but now the council was changing its mind. Weerts said it stemmed from wastewater department director Darold Nienhaus talking to select council members.

"I'm getting so tired of Darold coming back and back stabbing and coming back around the corner," Weerts said. "If he's gonna be mad at us, come and talk to us, or talk to us at a utility meeting and tell us what's wrong."

Then Weerts turned his attention to Ziegler: "And you're (acting) a little ugly because you didn't get the city administrator job," he said. "No - come on. Let's just iron it out. You're always asking these questions here. Let's get it out on the table."

Gates said asking questions is a responsibility of council members.

"I understand that," Weerts responded. "But I don't like those guys like Darold coming back and doing it."

The crux of the problem apparently involves city employees not respecting the authority of the administrator. Weerts addressed an issue from early in the open session, which involved such a case.

In February, after the regular meeting, a pump in the water tower broke. The part cost more than $750, which is the maximum amount Feely is able to authorize spent without council approval. Feely e-mailed or called each council member to get approval since she was told the part would need to be replaced immediately so the water tower wouldn't freeze.

At the March meeting, water department director Rick Mauris asked for approval for two parts, including the part that should have been ordered. This surprised the administrator and council.

Gates questioned Mauris' ability to order the part, saying it would need Feely's signature.

Feely explained that Mauris not only had the authorization, but she learned Mauris was trying to order the part through a second company - not the one authorized. The second company - First Supply - would have required her to take out a line of credit; something she was unwilling to do without research.

"So here, once again, you have Rick (Mauris) who is unhappy with me and he calls you to try to bypass the proper channels and I feel like I have no support, and I don't know how I can do my job if every time I tell them something they don't like, they run to you and this happens at the City Council meeting," Feely said.

"I've got the e-mail right on my phone," Nowak said. "This is what Jennifer sent me: 'The recirculation pump in the water tower blew out a seal and Rick Mauris has contacted Hawkins Treatment Group to obtain a replacement pump. The cost to replace the pump is $890 bucks. This is an item that needs to be replaced as soon as possible to keep water in the tower moving without freezing. I told Rick to go ahead and order the pump as it is urgent. I wanted to let you know why this was ordered without council authorization."

Councilman Rick Johnson said they all received Feely's message.

"But then we hear tonight it was not done; it didn't make any sense to any of us because we said, 'Yeah. Go ahead,'" Johnson said.

Weerts said the public works departments were "playing games."

Feely said it is clear what is going on, and she doesn't understand why Mauris didn't tell her about not replacing the part.

Ziegler said if there was a miscommunication, it all ultimately comes down on Feely's head because she is the supervisor.

"I guess I can send e-mails to verify with a paper trail what I've told people," Feely said.

Weerts recommended she do so.

Ziegler said Mauris wasn't there to defend himself, and Weerts said they weren't there to defend anybody.

"You're defending her," Ziegler said to Weerts.

"I'm not defending her," Weerts said. "She's the one hiring and firing those guys. We don't do that. She answers to the council."

Gates didn't understand why this "stuff" was happening.

Feely said it started on her first week, when she helped with something at the wastewater treatment plant.

"And that didn't go right, and since then, any time that I say something should be done or that I need to look into it, I have city employees going to council members," she said. "That's why I have a hard time doing my job when I don't have support from you guys because you hired me to do my job and I feel like I can't do my job. You guys socialize, whatnot, with the public works department."

Feely was referring to Gates, Ziegler and Johnson. Gates said he did, but that it wasn't a crime to be friends with people in public works.

"I've said this over and over," Nowak said. "The employees need to come to work and do their job and not worry about everything else."

Ziegler said when he worked for the city, he felt it was unfair to have the city administrator - then Nate Mathews - as "judge, jury and executioner." He said there was back stabbing then too.

"It happens and there's no easy solution to it," Ziegler said. "Everybody here has different relationships with each other."

He understands that if employees have problems and can't go to the administrator, they go to the mayor. But Ziegler said Feely and Nowak are friends: "I think it might be interpreted as 'If I tell something to Randy he's gonna go tell Jennifer.'"

"So basically, they'll go to whoever they think will give them what they want," Feely responded. "That's what's going on."

The discussion then turned to management experience. Gates said Feely should talk to city employees more.

"Then it makes them feel like they're a part of something ..." he said. "I'm not saying you're not doing that, but it might alleviate a lot of the pressures you might have."

Feely said she has scheduled time every week to talk to city employees. She said for a while, public works employees would come to her office numerous times a day wanting to know what was going on with everything she was doing, including things that did not pertain to their departments. She said Nienhaus even went so far as to try working on the entire budget.

"I guess my problem when I first came in, it just seemed like a free-for-all," Feely said. "A lot of people were doing a lot of things that were not in their job descriptions. I've had an uphill battle with just trying to do my job because I feel like there weren't a whole lot of people following the proper channels when I came in here."

Johnson said the council needs to push the chain of command with employees.

Weerts agreed, saying if employees don't believe Feely is working on the issue, they should talk to the mayor.

"I've gotta be honest with Jennifer," Weerts said. "If it ain't gonna work, you're gonna have to go. If things don't get happening one way - if you want to get respect from them, fire one of them. You'll get respect real quick."



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