Crowd backs Francis at council meeting

City Council will discuss manager in Monday session

City Manager Bob Francis’ job will simmer over the summer.

In a drama-filled special meeting of City Council Wednesday attended by about 125 people, citizens called for Bob Francis, who said June 24 he plans to resign, to stay on the job and for Mayor Arthur Babitz and Council Member Laurent Picard to resign.

Babitz and Picard declined to do so, and both, along with the rest of council, reiterated that they cannot comment on Francis’ resignation as it is a personnel matter.

Discussion continues in Monday’s regular Council meeting at 6 p.m.

On Wednesday, citizens told Babitz and Picard directly that they should resign, and called upon the city to formally apologize to Francis. No resignations or apologies were made, and Babitz declined to respond to Francis’ question “Can you tell me tonight if you want me to continue as your city manager?”

People filled all chairs in council chambers and dozens more stood in the lobby. Council listened as 16 citizens, including two former mayors, praised the embattled Francis and then agreed to delay action on Francis’ contract for another three months. Council also agreed to start discussions of mediation with Francis in the next council meeting, 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall.

“I want the mediator on the agenda for Monday,” Council Member Kate McBride said.

Upon his resignation, the nine-year city manager cited “micromanagement” by Babitz, leading to Wednesday’s special meeting.

Francis opened the meeting with this statement:

“I’ve said this since I announced my resignation is I believe in the process. There is a process in the city of Hood River and it is my opinion it is not being adhered to and for this to be a good government and a good team between the city manager and the city council, that process needs to be followed as close as can be.”

He directly asked if the council wants him to continue, noting, “after tonight, you may not want me. I would rather you tell me that now, rather than putting my family through this for the next couple of days. I’d hope to leave here under good circumstances.”

Francis cited in his letter of resignation, and stated at Wednesday’s session, his belief that Babitz and Council Member Laurent Picard had violated the City Charter by contacting city employees without going through Francis. Babitz and Picard have declined to comment.

Francis claimed that his problems with Babitz stemmed from confronting the mayor in early June after learning Babitz tried to set up a meeting with fire department employees, without the knowledge of Francis or Fire Chief Devon Wells. This, Francis and others argue, is in violation of the City Charter.

“This is bigger than me; I think it’s bigger than the mayor,” Francis said. “I could resign, the mayor could resign, the council could resign, but it’s bigger than that. And for this to be a good team of a collective group of appointed and seven elected officials then the process needs to move forward.

“So no matter what the result of these actions, the council really seriously needs to take a look the process and go from there. I love being the city manager, and I will leave it at that.”

From there, the public stepped up to praise Francis and criticize Babitz as well as Picard, who Francis charged in his resignation letter with telling him “to look for another job quickly” as the mayor and council wanted him gone.

“You may not always agree with Bob’s conclusions on things but you can’t disagree that they are well-informed,” said Erika Gerald. “Bob’s focus is to help Hood River reach its potential.”

“I’m hoping that Bob stays on and if anyone should resign it should be the mayor,” said Gary Gorman.

“We don’t have a mayor-run city in our form of government; this is a city manager kind of government,” said Gorman, who was on council when the current City Charter was adopted in 1991.

“If you start getting the mayor interfering in the day-to-day running of the city you have a serious conflict,” he said. “I think Bob has done a great job of running the city although he’s been interfered with by the mayor. The mayor’s job is to run the city council and the council sets the policies and budgets but they do not run the individual departments.”

Scott Franke also weighed in on Babitz’s perceived leadership style.

“It is really lovely to have a mayor who cares so deeply about the city and who has time to put in and let you guys off the hook a little and take up the slack of what you should be doing to balance this thing out and not have it appear to be an outright autocracy, essentially, where we don’t have these situations develop where it does seem, yes, like there is micromanagement going on,” Franke said.

Council president Ed Weathers disputed Franke’s and others’ remarks about Babitz’s alleged dominance, saying “We are all free thinkers.”

In addition to keeping Francis’ contract in play, Council also agreed to add to Monday’s agenda a discussion of mediation with Francis over references to concerns about his job performance. Asked about concerns over Francis’ performance, Babitz said they dated to April and are based on the 2013-14 budget process.

Babitz specifically said: “In late May, I’m going to say, I think it’s fair to say, there were several incidents that were outgrowths of the budget process, so if you’re asking for the origin of my concerns I’d say that they came out of the budget process. When did I feel it was necessary to discuss them with other councilors? I know councilors came to me during the budget process.”

Francis expressed surprise at Babitz’s statement, and said: “My job is to present a balanced budget to council, and I think we did that; and I have done that all nine years I’ve been here. I think the budget committee does what it wants and at the end they adopt a budget and I’m responsible for implementing it. With the help of my staff I can say we are now fiscally sound.

“If he says it was during the budget process — I don’t know why (he would say that.) It’s hard for me to know. We don’t talk.”

Francis restated his position that Babitz wanted him terminated and that Picard had specifically urged him to “quickly look for another job.” Picard said Wednesday he had urged Francis to look for other work, but “I did not say quickly,” which Francis disputed on Wednesday.

(City Attorney Dan Krause said Wednesday that in Francis’ case “there is no suggestion of cause.” The city has not done an employment review on Francis for five years.)

Picard said of calls for his resignation “I don’t think there’s any basis for me to resign,” and added, “I stand by what I said in the meeting” regarding the conflicting statements between Francis and himself.

Babitz said, “I think it got very emotional. I understand emotion. I think they made those calls before the heard my explanation of what happened.”

In part, his statement in the meeting was:

“This has been a difficult two weeks. I know many of you greatly appreciate Bob Francis’ many talents, and have shared with us kind testimonials.

“As hard as it’s been for you to talk about this topic, it’s been harder for me to not talk. For me or any member of the city council to ignore the advice of our attorneys to share details of what is at its heart a personnel issue would be irresponsible. So we’ve all been forced to endure a public discussion full of unsatisfying phrases like ‘It’s been reported that Bob said that council members said that the mayor said…’

“This is a textbook case of why personnel issues are hard to discuss in public.”

Francis also asked the council to answer that night “whether or not you want me to continue as your city manager,” but received no direct answer other than the contract extension.

“I think it was the best response they could give under the circumstances. I’d have liked (a more definitive answer) for the sake of my family. I would have liked to have known.

“More than anything I don’t want to disappoint them (the community),” Francis said following the outpouring of support expressed Wednesday. “I am truly humbled by what was said tonight.”

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