Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

No lame duck city managers; fire Letcher, hire new manager in January

The inevitable has happened – Mike Letcher has resigned.

But not until next year.

Say what?

He’s already been an ineffective city manager, this only makes him more so. Why should any city department head follow Letcher, especially the ones who will want his job?

There was no way he could hold onto his job with scandal after scandal beleaguering his administration. The question I had was whether the council would fire him before the election or after. I didn’t think he would resign because of the political problems it creates for the current council.

But a year-long lame duck city manger is ridiculous and further illustrates Letcher’s cluelessness of the city’s politics and problems.

The council needs to accept his resignation, effective immediately. Then name an interim city manager for the next two months and then do a national search for a strong manager with fresh eyes and fresh ideas for getting this city up off the deck and moving forward again.

If the council accepts his 52-week notice, it will be further proof of its inability to make tough decisions.

This election is a referendum on the past two years (if not the past four years) of this council.

If you like the direction the council is taking the city you want to re-elect Shirley Scott and Paul Cunningham and since this is a Democratic council in a Democratic town, you would most likely want Democrat Jonathan Rothschild as the new mayor.

But if you don’t like the direction of the city, you have an option, Republican council candidates Jennifer Rawson, Tyler Vogt and Republican mayoral candidate Rick Grinnell. If all were elected, they would join Republican Steve Kozachik to form a new council majority.

But I’m not sure four Republicans would create a ruling coalition, which the council has lacked for almost a decade. Grinnell, as mayor, would most likely want to take the leadership reins from Kozachik, but Koz has the experience and, thanks to the city charter, more power as a councilman than the mayor. Vogt and Rawson are the new breed Republicans, running more against government than for Tucson. I can see the four of them quickly breaking down into the same bickering that has plagued the Democrats the past few years.

As I see it, because the council is leaderless, the direction the city is headed is nowhere. There is no ruling coalition on the council. It’s a collection of individuals all pulling in different directions. Council women Regina Romero and Karin Uhlich are often aligned together but can’t always put together four votes to enact the more radical of their ideas.

Councilman Richard Fimbres often votes with them but he’s not a council leader, he rarely says anything at council meetings and even more rare are any initiatives from him for resurrecting the city from its economic doldrums and eviscerated city budget.

Republican Mayor Bob Walkup is often limited by the ridiculous city charter in his voting for council initiatives or leadership of the city. Moreover, while he has often voted with Democratic majority, lately he’s been voting more against it. But he’s also been no ally of Kozachik, the most active and vocal of city council members.

Kozachik has been repeatedly telling the council it’s on the wrong path but he can’t get any of them to follow him down the path he thinks is correct.

Cunningham has been the councilman most likely to vote with Kozachik but he’s running away from that a little bit during the campaign to differentiate himself from Republican Rawson.

And feisty, independent Shirley Scott has always been a wildcard. You’re never quite sure how she’s going to vote.

Letcher’s a nice guy and a decent assistant city manager. But he wasn’t ready for prime time in 2009 especially when prime time came during the worst budget crisis in the city’s history.

While he focused on the big picture, the budget, he left the day-to-day operation of the city to his assistants and middle managers. And they let him down. It’s been one fiasco after another, between road project cost overruns, using Rio Nuevo funds for city projects, the police chief and fire chief searches, glitchy 911 systems, theft and corruption in the quasi-governmental parking department and the ongoing feud with Rio Nuevo, Letcher was constantly on the hot seat explaining how he was aware of the problems and working to fix them. He seemed clueless to the fact that they shouldn’t have become problems in the first place.

Mike Letcher’s failure is not Mike Letcher’s fault. It’s the council’s. The city charter creates a strong manager, weak council form of government. But in order for that to work, there needs to be a strong manager and council with a ruling coalition that can give that manager strong direction. (There’s also the problem of council meddling in city management in which department heads can make friends with council members by favoring their wards and then when managers try to make changes or discipline or fire department heads, they can run to the council for protection).

Letcher muddles along because the council is muddling along. The council should act quickly by dumping Letcher this week and promoting one of his assistants interim mangaer, most likely Richard Miranda. Then hire a new manager after the election.

This is an important decision. Given the power the city charter gives the city manager, it’s perhaps the most important the council will make this year. Allowing Letcher to spend a year collecting a city paycheck while not having to own any of its problems, crises or scandals is scandalous in itself. He doesn’t want to be here. Fine. Show him the door.

Getting Tucson back on the right track will start with a new city manager. Blow it, and Tucson’s Lost Decade will continue.

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