Ousted Hein’s deputy no longer ‘interim’
The Tucson City Council decided Tuesday to forgo a national search for a replacement to ousted City Manager Mike Hein and chose instead to hire his former deputy.
With a 6-1 vote, Mike Letcher moved from a soon-to-retire background player to the city’s top bureaucrat, charged with leading the city through economic hard times, departmental restructuring and a multipronged financial assault from the state Legislature.
Councilman Steve Leal, who attended the meeting by phone, was the sole no vote.
Other council members sang Letcher’s praises and touted the quick transition.
Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, who put a closed session on the agenda to discuss a possible nationwide search, moved to have the vote before the scheduled session, just minutes after Letcher’s recommended budget for next fiscal year was distributed.
She described Letcher as “thoughtful and extremely competent and thorough and good.”
She said that after watching Letcher interact with her constituents during a recent town hall-type meeting, her assessment changed from “good” to “excellent.”
“Questions from every angle were thrown at you, and you had answers,” she told Letcher.
Trasoff asked the city attorney to begin negotiating a contract with Letcher, who has agreed to delay his retirement beyond the November date he had set.
Councilwoman Shirley Scott emphasized continuity.
“I think he’s a very well-qualified person with 30 years of experience,” she said. “He knows where we are so he has the know-how that can make for a smooth transition.”
Councilwoman Regina Romero said she hoped Letcher’s tenure would be long, even suggesting that it be “longer than five years.”
“I think you really have public service in mind,” Romero told Letcher, summarizing her reason for support.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich agreed, advocating for “a long period of service” and complimenting Letcher on his leadership in the city’s Financial Sustainability Plan, based on a plan he created in Sedona, where he had been city manager.
Tucson’s plan dedicates new revenues each year to public safety, parks and transportation but is now suspended because of plummeting sales tax receipts, a major source of funding for the city.
Mayor Bob Walkup said, “(Letcher)’s been a good deputy to Jim Keene and Mike Hein (the past two city managers), and I suspect he has the knowledge and expertise to lead us through a very difficult time.”
Despite the praise being showered on the new manager, not all hard feelings over the firing of Hein on April 7 have faded. In that decision, the council was divided, with Walkup, Trasoff and Councilman Rodney Glassman voting against the dismissal.
Glassman said Tuesday, “While I continue to disagree with the untimely decision to fire the former city manager, I’m pleased that our mayor and council will be able to provide some level of consistency and continuity with the appointment.”
Glassman emphasized that Letcher has a strong reputation as a manager among the members of municipal organizations. “I hear about him all the time at conferences,” Glassman said.
After the meeting, Leal said he voted against appointing Letcher not because of the new manager’s personal qualities or past performance, but because he regretted sidestepping a national search process in 2005 when the council hired Hein, a favorite of the Pima County business and political establishment.
Letcher, then a deputy manager, was a candidate in that aborted process. “We didn’t even get far enough to winnow anybody out,” Leal said.
Leal thinks Tucson could benefit from the contrasts an array of prospective managers would provide. The benefits, he argued, outweigh the appearance of urgency to fill the position immediately.
“When you look at the details, the major items are already under way,” he said, citing the budget and the police chief search, which was narrowed to local candidates after the council halted a national search.
While Leal says he’s worked well with Letcher in the past, he worries he doesn’t know him well enough, a casualty of the city hierarchy. He said Letcher has been “professional, affable and open to other ideas.”
Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, echoed Glassman’s support of Hein but backed the council’s taking action, even though it seemed he was surprised by the decision not to do a search.
“The council’s made some strange decisions recently,” he said. “The city needs strong leadership, and I hope (Letcher) brings it.”
Police union president Officer Larry Lopez said, “We need an individual who will lead by example, who will be transparent in their operations and management and, more important, will act with integrity.”
Lopez was critical of Letcher during labor negotiations last summer, complaining of a lack of transparency, but he said Tuesday he was ready to move on.
“We’ve got some big decisions in front of us,” he said.
That’s not lost on Letcher, who plunged into budget revisions minutes after Hein’s dismissal.
After the council’s votes, Letcher said only, “Thank you for your comments.”
Letcher has about three decades of experience in city management, mostly in college towns including Charlottesville, Va., and Amherst, Mass.
He’s occupied the deputy manager post since May 2001 and served as acting manager between Keene’s departure and Hein’s hiring.
Before moving to Tucson, he was Sedona’s top bureaucrat. He served that city for seven years.
Education: master’s in education from the University of Kansas
Years in Tucson government: 8
Total years in government: 30
Former posts: city manager of Winsooki, Vt., city manager of Sedona, Ariz., assistant town manager of Amherst, Mass.
Family: married, with three children