‘What now?’ is question of hour after 4-3 vote
City Manager Mike Hein (left) and Mayor Bob Walkup before Tuesday's executive session. Walkup voted to keep Hein.
Within minutes after the City Council’s vote to fire City Manager Mike Hein, the question “What now?” was repeated so many times it seemed to morph into a chant.
The council voted 4-3 to oust Hein after half an hour in a closed session that was intended to provide him with his annual performance review.
Mayor Bob Walkup, Councilman Rodney Glassman and Councilwoman Nina Trasoff voted to keep him. Council members Regina Romero, Karin Uhlich, Shirley Scott and Steve Leal voted him out.
After the vote, Jane Prior, supervisor of the city’s internal audit division, was among those asking what will happen now and who will run the city.
“They’re running out of people up there,” she said, referring to a retirement incentive-induced exodus that has emptied many of city government’s top seats. The city has shed about 2,000 employees in two years, records show.
Deputy City Manager Mike Letcher will take the helm until the council moves to appoint someone new, City Attorney Mike Rankin said. Letcher, however, has already signed up for the retirement program and plans to retire in November, he said.
Letcher would not comment on his ascension to the city’s top job Tuesday. Hein also declined to talk to reporters and left City Hall immediately following the vote.
Letcher is left holding the bag on an out-of-balance city budget, an angry Legislature threatening the future of downtown redevelopment, a do-over police chief search and numerous other items that frustrated some council members and prompted Tuesday’s vote.
Nobody thought a trip to the soda machine would take longer than the council’s evaluation of its top administrator.
But Roger Tamietti, president of the firefighters’ union, like Prior, missed the vote on a short jaunt to buy a soda.
Tamietti shook his head in response to a question about where the vote leaves labor group negotiations with the city over changes to employee benefits that are intended to plug about $10 million of next fiscal year’s projected budget shortfall. “I’m not sure,” he said. He declined to comment on the vote.
Police union leader Officer Larry Lopez, a vocal critic of both Hein and Letcher in the past, echoed the uncertainty but said he hoped the decision would lead to greater openness in city decision-making. “It’s time to move on,” he said.
Uhlich, who made the motion to dismiss Hein, said Tuesday evening that the decision to fire Hein would not have a substantial effect on the city’s wrangling with precipitous drops in revenue or its struggle to maintain the Rio Nuevo sales tax stream the state Legislature has threatened to sever. “The city certainly doesn’t ride on the rise or fall of one person,” she said.
Romero provided similar assurances, referring to the city as “a well-oiled machine” staffed with top-notch department leaders.
She cited concerns about transparency. “I think Tucson deserves better,” Romero said.
The vote left Hein’s three council supporters fuming.
“I think it was one of the most patently short-sighted and ill-conceived decisions they could have made,” Trasoff said of her colleagues.
Glassman said, “I supported the city manager based on his work performance and the importance of consistency and focus on taking care of our neighbors during these troubled economic times.”
Hein was scheduled to present a recommended budget April 18. He said earlier Tuesday that the document was nearly finalized. Interim budget supervisor Marie Nemerguth was not available Tuesday evening to comment.
Some council members’ tempers flared in recent weeks as they faced the prospect of tax and fee increases, layoffs, staff furloughs and department consolidations to balance the budget.
They were frustrated to learn of previously unacknowledged fund shortfalls and vocabulary mixups that caused shifting impressions of the city’s finances, and were alarmed by the abrupt resignation of ex-Finance Director Frank Abeyta after just four months on the job.
Just two weeks ago, Uhlich and Romero supported exploring ways to separate Hein from the city’s embattled downtown development effort, citing a lack of clarity in financial and managerial boundaries.
Uhlich proposed the division immediately after a unanimous vote to explore doing a detailed audit of the Rio Nuevo downtown development district, which has been faulted by state legislators for a perceived lack of transparency, accountability and visible results. Hein recently announced decisions to halt work on several Rio Nuevo projects, citing the economic downturn.
Hein was hired in 2005 from Pima County, where he was assistant county administrator, with resounding support from the business community led by restaurateur Bob McMahon.
Tuesday, McMahon still supported Hein.
“This just shows that these four people on the City Council accept no responsibility for the way they have mismanaged Rio Nuevo and various other issues all over Tucson,” McMahon said.
“They’re using Mike Hein as a scapegoat instead of looking in the mirror and seeing the real culprit,” he said. “I can’t imagine anybody of any quality wanting to work for this City Council.”
Other business leaders were silent for a few seconds when asked for comment on Hein’s dismissal.
Steve Lynn was the architect behind the formation of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities and the Downtown Tucson Partnership, both formed in collaboration with Hein. Lynn is the partnership’s chairman and Hein sat on its board.
“I think Mike has been trying to be helpful with downtown,” said Lynn, vice president of communications at UniSource Energy Co. and its subsidiary, Tucson Electric Power. “He was trying to work to put Rio Nuevo back on track. I fear it will have a negative impact on our ability to keep the (tax increment financing that funds Rio Nuevo.)
Glenn Lyons, chief executive of the Downtown Tucson Partnership, worked closely with Hein, who delegated the sale of a handful of city-owned properties to Lyons’ group.
“I believe that Mike Hein was an excellent city manager,” Lyons said. “He had managed to extend the (tax increment financing) and move us well along on expansion of the convention center and development of a new hotel.”
Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said the timing of Hein’s dismissal is unfortunate with the city’s financial problems and efforts to hire a police chief, let alone the risk of losing Rio Nuevo’s funding.
“It will no doubt impact the Rio Nuevo legislation as it works its way through the Legislature,” Camper said. “Sen. (Jonathan) Paton has made no bones of the fact that he’s supportive of Rio Nuevo, but if Hein goes, all bets are off.”
Paton did not immediately return calls.
Hein’s salary is $211,820. He will receive half that amount in severance plus benefits under the terms of his contract.
HEIN JOB TIMELINE
April 7, 2009: Hein fired.
Feb. 15, 2005: Hired as city’s 23rd city manager
2003: Pima County assistant county administrator
1998: Marana town manager
1997: Marana assistant town manager
1993: Nogales assistant administrator
1991: South Tucson economic development administrator