MUSCATINE — Muscatine City Council came one step closer Thursday night to opening lines of communication between members of council and city staff.
Both council members and department heads expressed a need for mutual trust, in that council members trust department heads to give an accurate representation of their department, and department heads trust that council will not abuse a system in which they have access to city staff.
The conversation around amending a section of city code for the sake of transparency was addressed most recently at the July 18 council meeting. The issue some council members have is with Chapter 1, Title 10, Section 2 City Administrator E.1.b., which states, "Any elected official shall deal with city department heads and employees, who are subject to the direction and supervision of the city administrator solely, through the city administrator, and council members shall not give orders to any such department heads or employees either publicly or privately. All departmental activity requiring the attention of the council shall be brought before that body by the city administrator."
Councilman Santos Saucedo proposed a replacement to the section of code at the July meeting that would give council members "unfettered access" to city staff. Saucedo wasn't the only elected official to seek a change. Councilman Kelcey Brackett expressed a similar opinion at a January meeting. After the last discussion, Brackett requested the alternative section, "Any elected official shall have unfettered access to department heads or staff employees for the purpose of open communications. Council members shall not give orders to any such department heads or employees either publicly or privately in communications," be added to Thursday night's agenda for a vote.
Instead, the council received two letters: one from City Attorney Matt Brick about why the section of code is written in such a way and possible legal implications to changing the code.
The second was a three-page letter, signed by six department heads, sharing their strong concerns about the proposed amendment. Finance Director Nancy Lueck, Fire Chief Jerry Ewers, Public Works Director Brian Stineman, Police Chief Brett Talkington, Human Resources Manager Stephanie Romagnoli and Library Director Pam Collins all signed the letter addressed to the Muscatine City Council.
Staff argue the proposed change amounts to a "witch hunt" that questions the integrity of employees of the city and does not equal greater transparency as suggested. Each department also has its own chain of command, the letter read, and to add councilors to that list during any given work day "would be disruptive to the department, could lead to undermining of supervisors and department heads, could lead to employees trying to personally advance by undermining their chain of command, and would likely detract from ongoing work and services provided by the department."
City staff wrote that meeting with council members one-on-one without a department head or the city administrator present would likely make employees feel awkward or uncomfortable. They said some councilors believe they are getting biased information, but employees "frequently provide feedback to their supervisors or department heads and are frequently asked for their input."
Many of those sentiments were echoed by city staff, including Romagnoli and Stineman at the meeting.
Brick created an addition to the the section of code, which Saucedo read aloud Thursday night.
"Elected officials shall have access to department heads or staff employees for the purpose of open and two-way communications however, any meetings, issues or concerns raised through department heads or staff to elected officials shall be brought to the attention of the city administrator."
The proposed addition was acceptable to Saucedo and Brackett.
The discussion closed with council in consensus to bring the ordinance up for the first of three readings at the next council meeting, Sept. 5.