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City employees' letter claims mismanagement

Civic, business leaders defend city manager
By: Steve Archer, Reporter
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A letter delivered Friday to the Lincoln City Council allegedly from a group of city employees questions the competency of Lincoln Community Development director Matt Wheeler, Human Resources manager Astrida Trupovnieks and City Manager Matt Brower.

All five City Councilmen received the hand-delivered letter at their homes, according to City Councilman Paul Joiner.

The letter stems from a Jan. 30 meeting of city employees from several departments. According to the letter, two City Councilmen and the city attorney were present at the meeting. Mayor Stan Nader confirmed he attended the meeting along with Councilman Dan Karleskint and city attorney Kristine Mollenkopf.

Although unsigned and not dated, Mayor Stan Nader said Tuesday he is comfortable with the letter’s authenticity.

“Obviously, having attended the meeting of 30 city employees, I was not surprised to receive the letter,” Nader said. “It pretty well catalogues their feelings about things they feel are happening that are not good for the city.”

“It’s not signed or dated because of a fear of retaliation,” Nader added. “There certainly has been the threat of retaliation. I appreciate the trust the employees have in me.”

Nader said he brought the letter with him to the council’s closed session meeting Tuesday. Brower’s annual employee evaluation was on the agenda for the closed session. Nader announced Tuesday night that the council had not concluded its closed session agenda and would reconvene the meeting at a date and time yet to be determined.

City attorney Kristine Mollenkopf confirmed that she attended the Jan. 30 employee meeting but would not comment on the letter’s authenticity because she did not want to betray the trust of the employees.

City Councilman Peter Gilbert said he was concerned about the letter’s authenticity.

 “I can’t be sure it is from the people it represents,” Gilbert said Tuesday. “Certainly, if what they are claiming is true, you have to be concerned.”

City Councilman Gabriel Hydrick, in an emailed response to The Lincoln News Messenger, said the issues detailed in the letter need attention.

“I have been feverishly gathering information and facts by talking to staff; I have been all questions and ears to date,” Hydrick emailed. “Some of these issues have received attention – prior to the letter – and others will be receiving attention soon.”

“There is no doubt that there are issues and things can be handled through alternative means but they do not rise to the occasion of notifying the council only days prior to releasing it to the public,” Hydrick added. “Under these circumstances things spin wildly out of control with people aligning themselves to opposing sides before facts are even gathered, considered and addressed. The byproduct is toxic for our community, from relationships to business investment to staff recruitment.”

 Hydrick said a meeting of 30 employees was not representative of the entire city workforce and that, collectively, it is the best team he has seen.

Concerns

Included among the concerns expressed in the letter, regarding the Community Development Department, are:

  • Mismanagement of city resources by the Community Development Department, including using four full-time consultants from Bennett Engineering, three at $70/hour each and one at $55/hour. The letter-writers allege the work done by four consultants was previously done by a single, full-time employee at $49/hour.
  • A request to increase the contract with Bennett Engineering, from $25,000 to $125,000.
  • Not collecting developers’ deposits to cover consultant work and not paying consultants in a timely manner due to a lack of funds.

Wheeler, before coming to work as the city’s Community Development Director, was a project director for Bennett Engineering, according to Wheeler’s Linked in profile.

On Tuesday night, City Council approved the increase to the contract with Bennett Engineering by a 3-2 vote. Nader and Hydrick voted no. Without approval of the increased contract, Wheeler said Tuesday night, he would have to close at least partially his department doors.

“Being short-staffed has impeded our ability to do the work,” Wheeler said. “It’s not fair to say one person was doing the work of three to four people.”

Included among the concerns, regarding the Human Resources Department, are:

  • The accidental posting by Trupovnieks on Facebook of confidential employee information. The employee in question, according to the letter, is now pursuing legal action against the city over the incident.
  • Payment of $15,000 for executive coaching of Trupovnieks.
  • Mismanagement of city resources resulting in $11,000 in attorney costs due to an allegedly flawed salary-compensation survey.

Trupovnieks was appointed to the Human Resources manager position by Brower. She had previously worked for both Brower and Rocklin City Manager Ricky Horst in Ocala, Fla. Horst was Ocala city manager from 2008 to 2011 and was replaced by Brower, who was Ocala city manager from 2011 to 2014, when his contract was not renewed. Brower was assistant city manager to Horst.

City manager supporters

During the public comment period of Tuesday night’s meeting, several community leaders defended Brower.

Dan Cross, Lincoln Planning Commission chairman, said he was disturbed by the personal attacks on Brower that have been made on social media.

“I know him personally and he has high integrity, he is honest, fair and just,” Cross said. “I am proud and happy to call Matt Brower my city manager.”

Cross added that he believes Brower is responsible for several amenities in Lincoln, including the Lincoln Theatre Company, the Lincoln Potters, the art in public places campaign and an improved outlook for the Lincoln Airport.

Paul Schechter, a Lincoln Theatre Company board member and a founder, also spoke in support of Brower.

“There might not be a Lincoln Theatre Company without Matt Brower and his creativity and ability to bring people together,” Schechter said. “I am disappointed by some of the public discourse going on now. It seems like a legal issue that won’t be resolved by calling each other names.”

Wayne Sisneroz, former Downtown Lincoln Association president and a Lincoln Area Chamber of Commerce member, said he has dealt with Brower on a number of issues and believes he has integrity.

“I don’t see any facts in the allegations,” Sisneroz said. “We should not impugn the city manager; I can’t see the city going forward without Matt Brower.”

Richard Pearl, a city Airport Committee member and Economic Development Committee member, said he has seen hundreds of city managers and “Brower is one of the better ones.”

“We have to look at the overall balance,” Pearl said. “We are moving forward and the city manager deserves our support.”

Brower responds

Brower said Wednesday morning that he has not been given a copy of the letter and is not aware of the specifics. And on Tuesday, through an email exchange, Brower said he has not been contacted by any union representatives nor have any grievances been filed.

“There are numerous paths available to employees to address concerns and it appears many of the traditional paths have not been traveled,” Brower emailed The Lincoln News Messenger. “I have an open door policy and always welcome staff and members of the community. I hope to have an opportunity to work with staff on the issues speculated to be in the letter to build a better workplace.”

Brower added that “it appears these issues are being raised by internal services staff.”

“We have fiscal committee meetings, internal budget meetings, leadership meetings, agenda review meetings, strategic issues meetings, along with many other avenues for raising concerns of this nature,” Brower emailed Wednesday. “The department’s director is also another resource. It appears issues may simply be a difference of opinion between staff. Based on last night’s council meeting it appears issues may also be based on limited or incomplete information.”