The City of Gretna's decision to fill the job of fired City Administrator Colleen Lawry before the Nov. 6 mayoral election is sparking criticism from the two candidates vying for mayor.
Departing Mayor Sally McGuire said the job demands at City Hall and growing prospects for redevelopment at the Gretna Crossing outlet mall make it critical to hire a new city administrator as soon as possible.
McGuire has served as both mayor and acting city administrator since Lawry was fired on May 1 and charged with misusing city funds.
“It is just like a business that loses its chief executive officer,” McGuire said. “I try to fill in at City Hall, but I cannot spend 40 hours there. You really need someone to run that office from 8 to 5.”
This month, Gretna received 23 applications after advertising the job with a $76,000 salary. The Gretna City Council has hired a consultant at $75 per hour plus expenses to screen applicants and help select three to five finalists for interviews.
But the two candidates for mayor — Gretna businessman Kip Edmonds and former Councilman Jim Timmerman — say the winner of the November election should oversee the appointment because city administrators typically serve at the mayor's discretion.
“The voters made it clear in May they wanted a new mayor,” Edmonds said. “For the current mayor to move forward with this, I don't think is appropriate.
“I may not pick the candidate that Jim would pick, and he may not pick the candidate that I would like.”
Added Timmerman: “Their previous track record of hiring a city administrator was not very good.”
McGuire finished in last place in the four-person May primary, less than three weeks after State Auditor Mike Foley raised questions about Lawry's expenses and about a lack of oversight of city funds.
Timmerman suggested that Gretna hire an interim administrator, as the Omaha Public Schools did by bringing on retired Ralston Superintendent Virginia Moon for the current school year.
“I am sure there is a retired city clerk who would gladly do it,” Timmerman said.
Timmerman said he still is evaluating whether Gretna even needs a full-time city administrator. He suggested that the city might need only a person who functions as more of a city clerk.
“This is not something that should be pushed through,” Timmerman said, “because the mayor sets the direction. That person has to work very, very closely with the next mayor.”
Edmonds and Timmerman said they have reservations about letting McGuire and the current City Council draw up the terms of a new city administrator's contract.
McGuire negotiated — and the City Council approved — a contract for Lawry that gave her a salary of $90,184, free health insurance, guaranteed annual raises of 3 to 5 percent, and an annual cost of living increase if one was awarded to other city employees. The contract gave Lawry unrestricted use of a city-owned Chrysler Sebring, compensatory pay for working more than eight hours a day and the potential for performance bonuses based on the results of an evaluation conducted by McGuire and the council.
“Gretna got the short end of the stick on the last city administrator's contract,” Edmonds said.
McGuire said she wants the next city administrator to be knowledgeable about economic development, be familiar with the Legislature and have strong leadership skills.
Even though it's her appointment, she said she plans to rely on the council's input. “I am not going to be the one making the final decision,” McGuire said. “It is the council. It is their decision on what they are looking for.”
Bill Podraza, Gretna's consultant for the search, said he is optimistic that Gretna can hire a top-notch leader in spite of the Lawry scandal.
Podraza is a retired Nebraska Public Power District vice president for human resources and a former longtime Lexington city manager. He oversaw the selection of new city managers and administrators in Aurora, McCook and Madison.
He said Timmerman and Edmonds are welcome to attend the finalist interviews, which will be conducted during a City Council meeting.
But Podraza acknowledged that going ahead with a hire before the election might affect the selection process, because the hire would not know the next mayor's preferences.
“The new person coming in is going to have that issue,” Podraza said. “That could be challenging.”
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