In an unprecedented move, two Warrenton department heads were granted employment contracts last week following concerns that they may be targeted for termination by a new mayor.
The contracts for Director of Operations/Finance Officer Terri Thorn and Police Chief Greg Houdyshell were approved by a 5-1 vote during an April 3 closed meeting.
Thorn and Houdyshell signed their contracts after the closed session. They went into effect immediately.
The timing of the board’s action, occurring on the same evening a new mayor and two new aldermen were elected and at the final meeting presided over by outgoing Mayor Greg Costello, has raised eyebrows.
Thorn and Houdyshell are the only city employees who have employment contracts. The city typically has not utilized employment contracts in the past, according to current and past city officials.
Costello said he suggested employment contracts for Thorn and Houdyshell after hearing rumors they might be fired after the election. He said about two weeks before the April 3 election he started receiving reports that one of the mayoral candidates was “openly stating that when elected he would fire or remove one or more current department heads.” Costello first assumed it was a rumor, he said, until the same story was relayed to him multiple times.
“The exact statement made was ‘she’s got to go’ in regard to one employee,” Costello said in a prepared statement.
Costello said he requested the closed session meeting for personnel-related matters and recommended to the board that employment contracts be offered to Thorn and Houdyshell. In his statement, he said both employees “had been targeted for termination without the review or consideration on their past or present performance with the city.”
Ward 1 Aldermen Phil Tallo and Dan Dieckmann, Ward 2 Aldermen Fred Flake and Beth Kendall, and Ward 3 Alderman Don Broering voted in favor of the contracts. The lone dissenting vote was made by Ward 3 Alderman John Clark.
“I don’t think city employees trying to do their jobs should worry about the political consequences of somebody getting elected,” Costello told The Record in an interview Friday. “Ironically, if this person or candidate had come in and taken a look at what is going on at city hall, this probably would not have happened.”
The contracts for Thorn and Houdyshell will renew automatically each year. The contracts stipulate that both employees are “at-will” employees and that the board of aldermen can dismiss them without cause. If that were to occur, each would receive severance pay equal to a year’s salary. Under the terms of the contract, if either employee is discharged for cause, they would not be entitled to severance pay.
Thorn is currently the highest paid employee in the city with a $79,536.06 annual salary. She has been with the city since March 2003, including serving as director of operations since January 2008.
Houdyshell, meanwhile, is the second-highest paid with a $64,890 salary. He has been employed with the city since 2008 and been police chief since September 2009.
While city officials are not identifying the candidate by name, The Record has learned the alleged comments were made by Jerry Dyer, who collected 70 percent of the vote in the six-person race and easily won last Tuesday’s mayoral race.
Dyer was sworn in as mayor Friday during an informal ceremony held at the Warren County Courthouse rather than wait until the next board meeting on April 17.
Though he declined to comment about the board’s recent actions on the employment contracts, he said in a prepared statement he wanted to get sworn in early so that he could get up to speed on city business, including what occurred in the closed meeting.
Clark explained that he didn’t want to see the board rush into a decision after reviewing the contracts for the first time at the April 3 closed meeting. He also felt the new elected officials should have input.
“I think it was something to hold off until the new board is in,” Clark told The Record. “I wanted more time to look at the contracts and do some research. I wanted to look at it, study it more. I don’t know if it’s a good deal or a bad deal.”
Flake, however, said he had enough time to review the contracts. He acknowledged that the candidate in question spoke to him about the need to remove Thorn. Upon hearing that, he forwarded his concerns to other city officials.
“I thought they (employment contracts) were needed,” Flake stated. “I thought it was a safety precaution.”
When asked if this final action by the board under his leadership will overshadow some of his 20 years spent as mayor or alderman, Costello responded, “I think history will take care of itself. What I know, there has never been a corruption case when I was steering the ship. Everything I have done is to try to be honest and treat everybody the same, including myself.
“Sometimes it has cost me more money, but I didn’t want the perception that I was being treated differently. Now that doesn’t mean somebody doesn’t think, ‘He’s the mayor, he must be getting a special deal.’ But I know that in my own heart, I will always have critics regardless if we had this issue or not. These two employees should be treated fairly like anybody else.”