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Council looks at options for vacancy

Sat., Jan. 23, 2010

Mercier (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman Review)
Mercier (Liz Kishimoto / The Spokesman Review)

Panel must fill city manager position by Feb. 5

The Spokane Valley City Council must make a decision by Feb. 5 on what it intends to do with the vacant city manager position, City Attorney Mike Connelly said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have to rather quickly appoint someone,” he said.

The council has three options in replacing former City Manager Dave Mercier. A current city employee can be named city manager and then a search can be conducted for a new deputy city manager. A current city employee can be named interim city manager while the council solicits applications for the position. The final and most commonly used option is to appoint an interim city manager and hire a company to conduct a national search for a permanent replacement.

If an internal candidate is promoted to interim city manager there would likely have to be a clause in the contract stipulating that the employee can return to his or her previous position if they are fired from the city manager position by the council “or else no one would take the contract,” Connelly said.

The second option is the cheapest, likely costing about $10,000 to fly candidates in for interviews. But by doing the search on its own the city would likely get fewer candidates, Connelly said. Hiring a company to conduct the search would be more expensive at about $30,000, but the pool of candidates would be larger.

There is the added difficulty of Mercier being asked to resign, which may make some potential candidates cautious, he said.

There is no limit on how long the city can take to select a permanent replacement. “You have the option to do whatever you want,” Connelly said. “You can act quickly. You can act slowly. It’s up to you.”

Councilwoman Brenda Grassel asked if the council should go through with a search process if it is considering moving to a strong mayor form of government. “Is this a good time to look into that?”

Connelly recommended continuing with the city manager replacement process. “It would take some time to get there,” Connelly said. “I don’t really think it would interfere with this other process.”

The cost to the city will depend on which option the council selects. The city is already on the hook for a year of severance pay at $175,362. The former council renewed Mercier’s contract in December and he received a raise of 5.5 percent effective Jan. 1, which is included in that figure. “We gave him the same salary increase we gave the other employees,” former Mayor Rich Munson said in a separate interview. “It’s in the contract that he gets the same raise as everyone else.”

The city is also obligated to pay Mercier for half of his accumulated sick days and all of his accumulated vacation. Those numbers have yet to be calculated, but the contract limits the accumulation to 90 days of vacation and 120 sick days, for a maximum possible seven months additional pay.

The council is scheduled to make a decision on an interim city manager and which route to take to hire a permanent replacement during the Feb. 2 council meeting.

Many people were not surprised by Mercier’s departure since it appeared to be planned in advance. During the election campaign Dean Grafos and Bob McCaslin were critical of Mercier’s contract as too generous, and Grassel objected to Mercier being allowed to live outside the city and still run his consulting business. The candidates gathered for coffee many weekday mornings at the Sprague Avenue Yoke’s during and after the campaign and several people who have attended some of the meetings confirmed that Mercier’s ouster was a topic of discussion months ago.

Mike Connelly said the issue came to a head during a Dec. 9 orientation for the newly elected council members taking office in January. The new council members were asked what their intentions were toward Mercier and Connelly said he outlined their options, which were to ask Mercier to resign or to try to fire him for cause.

“It was the elephant in the room and (Mercier) brought it up,” said Councilwoman Rose Dempsey. Mercier did not ask to resign, but rather was acknowledging the inevitable and wanted to do it as quickly and cleanly as possible, Dempsey said.

Munson said he saw Grafos and McCaslin arrive at City Hall the following Monday, Dec. 14, for a meeting with Mercier. “They discussed dismissing him at that time,” he said.

Dempsey also spoke to Mercier about that meeting. “Dave didn’t say much, but he did say he met with three of them in his office,” she said.

When asked to confirm the Dec. 14 meeting, Grafos said he had no memory of it and would have to check his calendar. He later sent an e-mail declining to comment further. “As a council person, it is not appropriate for me to comment on personnel matters,” he wrote.

Mercier has not responded to requests for comment.

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