(JARED ARNOLD/Chewelah Independent)
SURPRISE MOVE: Frizzell steps down from city administrator position, takes over as public works director…
In a quick and surprising move at the June 19 meeting of the Chewelah City Council, the council agreed after just 20 minutes of discussion to make personnel changes requested by the mayor that will fundamentally change the city’s management structure that has been in place for over 40 years.
Mayor Dorothy Knauss asked the council to consider the last-minute agenda addition after City Administrator Mike Frizzell had earlier announced to her that he would be resigning his position and asked to step into the unfilled public works director spot. The only item of business on the council’s published agenda was a new “Public Records Policy,” but that topic was tabled for a future meeting because Knauss and Frizzell “weren’t quite ready for it.” However, the two were well prepared to recommend the personnel changes that will eliminate the city administrator job, move Frizzell into the public works position and create a new role of administrative assistant to the Mayor. Knauss had a package of information ready for each of the council members that outlined the job descriptions for the new positions, proposed salaries and a new organizational chart for all city workers.
“Last week, the city administrator approached me and asked if he could step down into the public works director job. I agreed to that. [The city] did have a public works director at one point. Which left us with the dilemma of ‘What are we going to do?” Knauss explained to the council. “I totally, heartily, recommend that we do not hire another city administrator.” Knauss suggested that there has been a history of instability in the administrator position, noting that there have been seven people in that job since she held it herself in 1986.
The position of city administrator was created in 1978 to serve many functions including the supervision of city offices and departments, preparing and administering the annual budget, personnel officer and grant writer. The position has since taken on other duties such as a building official, land use and development, nuisance control and public records officer. In fact, a quick search of the city’s municipal code book reveals the position is so enmeshed in city affairs that it appears 119 times in 47 sections of the code.
The city had a public works director until 2013 when budget constraints caused the council to eliminate the position. Denise Smith later sued the city, alleging gender discrimination and wrongful termination. She and the city eventually settled the matter out of court. That position was left unfilled until now, and Gary Nussbaum worked as the field supervisor for the public works department until his retirement last month.
Knauss told the Council the reasons why she felt it would not be a good idea to hire a new administrator.
“One is that, with only two-and-a-half years left in my term, I feel it’s unfair to bring someone in who the next mayor may not like, and that person serves at the pleasure of the mayor,” she said.
Knauss praised Frizzell for his eight years as administrator and his ability to handle all aspects of the position. She said it has been common for past administrators to understand either the public works side of the job or the finance and administrative side, but rarely would there be an administrator who could do both.
“Mike is the one that has known both,” she said in explaining the difficulty of finding a replacement. “He’s been the one that’s done the whole job.”
Knauss then showed the council the job descriptions that were developed for the new positions.
“We sat down and talked with people. Mike and I spent a great deal of time taking the city administrator’s job description and the [old executive secretary] job, and kinda morphed those out into two jobs. What I would suggest for the office is an administrative assistant to the mayor. Mike would then handle everything out in the field. The engineers, the projects, that sort of thing, just like he has done. But I’m going to have to step in and handle some stuff for the next two-and-a-half years while I bring [the administrative assistant] up to speed. This person would not serve at the pleasure of the mayor, but would be protected by the personnel policy,” Knauss explained.
Knauss said that one of the primary and immediate jobs of the administrative assistant would be serving as the public records officer, filling and managing all public records requests as required by state law.
“I think Mike, since the first of the year, has spent 60 percent of his time on the [public records] requests that we’ve had,” Knauss told the Council.
The city is currently being sued by two inmates for alleged violations of the Public Records Act, and all city workers were trained on the law and its requirements last week.
Knauss said that the administrative assistant may also take on some human resource responsibilities to help relieve Clerk/Treasurer Pam McCart.
Knauss indicated to the council that she has a qualified existing employee that is ready to step in the position. In a later interview with The Independent, she said that person is the deputy billing clerk, Leslie Johnson.
Councilwoman Cori Wuesthoff expressed concern about the mayor and a new administrative assistant being able to take on what was already an over-capacity workload for the city administrator.
“Over the past year, Mike has voiced his concern about his overflowing plate of job duties. So, with Mike stepping down into that public works position, and you as Mayor taking on a more than full-time position, is one more person, an administrative assistant, going to be able to handle that?” Wuesthoff questioned.
“I think so,” Knauss answered.
Knauss also said that she may need to extend the hours that she is in the office to cover all the duties.
“I will do what I need to do to make the transition. I don’t know what that’s going to take because this is a brand new position, we’re going to have to kind of morph into it and see how it’s going to work with [Mike] doing [public works] and another person doing something else. But I am committed. That’s what I was elected to do is run the city, so it was my choice to spend time in the office anytime. If it takes more, I’ll do more,” Knauss further explained.
Frizzell also offered some explanations
“To help answer your first question, we got lucky in the timing of the building official. By the time we brought on the building inspector, or shortly after, is when the public records thing hit, so the job load is probably a little higher than it was,” he said. The city contracted with Bruce Barone to handle building inspection duties in March to lessen the workload on the administrator.
“One thing that I’m taking down with me [to public works] is all the working with the engineers and managing those projects which took up a great deal of time as well. So, I’m taking that down in to where it really belongs. The city administrator has never done that before. I took that on because we didn’t have anyone in public works that could do that or had that background. So that’s being taken down to lessen that load on what was the city administrator. So, between that and someone handling the public records, the workload is going to be significantly more for the mayor until we work the details out over the next two years. But it’s not like you’re taking the full load of the CA’s job and dumping it on the administrative assistant and the mayor,” Frizzell said to help alleviate Wuesthoff’s concern.
Councilman Payton Norvell said he was concerned that losing the city administrator might make it harder for the council to implement their ideas, as Frizzell was instrumental in helping the council translate their ideas into policy and ordinance form.
“That might be the place that we struggle, getting our ideas to coalesce into something concrete,” Norvell said.
Norvell acknowledged that, in Frizzell’s absence, Knauss would still be able to help the council with new ordinances, but wondered how that might work with a new mayor when Knauss’s term ends.
“If the expectations of the mayor are a little higher, [the city] may have to pay them more than 600 dollars per month in the future,” Norvell opined.
“Do you think this is something that we can be successful with as a town?” Councilman Evan Schalock asked.
Knauss explained that other towns operate similarly with success.
“I think so. Colville operates this way and they’re almost twice our size. Some things will probably change here, the way we do things, and we may slow down temporarily until we get our feet on the ground. I think it will work,” Knauss concluded.
According to the City of Colville website, Colville employs nine administrative-level workers, plus the mayor, where Chewelah will now have five administrative workers in addition to the Mayor. According to Knauss’ salary worksheet, the city should also save approximately $30,000 as a result of the new organization.
Under the old system, annual salary and benefits for the city administrator cost $133,847, and Public Works Supervisor Gary Nussbaum cost $103,898, for a total of $237,745.
Under the new scenario that eliminates the city administrator and public works supervisor, but adds the public works director, the mayor’s administrative assistant and building inspector, Public Works director Frizzell will earn wages and benefits totaling $111,616, administrative assistant Leslie Johnson will cost $64,923 and the building inspector contract costs the city $30,000 for a total of $206,539.
The mayor based the new wages on a policy previously established by the council which sets local pay at 85 percent of the statewide average for the same position in cities with populations 2,500 to 7,500.
According to the salary data used, public works directors in Chewelah’s population group range from $4,342 in Forks (population 3,595) to $12,500 in North Bend (population 6,605). The average reported salary was $7,676. Frizzell will earn $6,850 per month plus benefits.
Administrative assistants in the same population group range from $2,659 in Omak (population 4,925) to $5,793 in Ocean Shores (population 6,055). The average reported salary was $4,413. Johnson will earn $3,751 plus benefits.
The Council voted 5-2 in favor of the personnel changes. Councilwomen Cori Wuesthoff and Carra Nupp voted against the proposal.
The next regular meetings of the Chewelah City Council are scheduled for Wednesday , July 3 and Wednesday, July 17 starting at 6:30 p.m. at the city hall council chambers.