Mayor calls for City Administrator Johnson’s resignation
During an abrupt and short announcement at the end of Tuesday’s Personnel and Finance Committee, Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner advised those in attendance that he had asked City Administrator Dave Johnson to resign.
As part of an interview with Woellner this morning, he indicated having given Johnson two separate opportunities for voluntary resignation.
“I first asked for his resignation Monday night,” Woellner said. “He immediately refused, so I gave him another day to think it over and asked him to resign once again before Tuesday’s meeting. Once again, I received an immediate response of ‘no.’ I explained I felt it would be better for the city for him to step down voluntarily, rather than having to call a meeting and potentially terminate his employment. But he wasn’t willing to do that.”
Woellner cites several reasons for the request and subsequent proceedings for an evaluation and discussion of Johnson’s performance; personal conduct and failing to fulfill obligations top Woellner’s list.
“I have witnessed him be rude to others on many occasions before I took office and since I took office in April,” he explained. “There are times I have seen him be polite and do things the right way. He has also attended some meetings that he didn’t really have to, and I think that’s wonderful. But other times I have seen him be very condescending and telling people their ideas aren’t good ideas. He has a way of making people feel small or beneath him when he talks to them. There’s just a better way to go about things than that.”
Woellner listed various occasions where he felt Johnson displayed poor customer service skills, including city council meetings, Active and Aware Citizen (AAC) meetings and his treatment of a community member who attempted to initiate development of a skate park in 2016. Woellner said he had in fact approached Johnson at one point regarding his conduct and public communication skills.
“It’s not just a matter of me personally being unhappy with him, but its a matter of the community desiring a change in city leadership,” Woellner said. “I feel and have been told by many, that’s what the community voted for in April. I feel Mr. Johnson has not completely fulfilled the responsibilities of his position. For instance, after examining the city’s comprehensive, strategic and downtown vision plans, I have noticed there are many items which have not been addressed and goals which have not been pursued. I don’t feel the tax payers are getting what they are paying for with the salary he is paid every year.”
Tuesday’s announcement most likely came as little surprise to those who closely followed the city’s mayoral race in April. During his bid for office, Woellner was very vocal regarding his vision for reconfiguration of administrative positions at City Hall, as a cost saving measure. And upon being elected, he directly addressed the City Administrator and City Attorney positions.
“I would like to see the city administrator position eliminated and replaced by an HR (Human Resources Director) as well as the city attorney,” Woellner stated in an April interview with the Merrill Foto News. “I see value in the city attorney position, but his salary is too high. I don’t feel the City Administrator has the skills to hire and manage personnel. Any responsibilities currently held by the City Administrator, that an HR director is not qualified to handle, would be turned over to the Mayor. I feel I could handle those responsibilities during my term, it would be tough but I think I could do it. But eventually I would like to see the mayor position become full-time again, with benefits. Not during my tenure, as I feel that would be unfair. But by having a full-time mayor, I feel the city would be better served than forcing a mayor to either be retired, self-employed or juggle a full-time job on the side. Also a full-time mayor could better handle additional responsibilities than a part-time mayor.”
In looking back on his decision to request Johnson’s resignation and the months leading up to it, Woellner feels the time has come and he’s confident his decision was the right one.
“Looking at what is going on at City Hall is a whole different story from the outside looking in, than once I was elected and saw first-hand. I wanted to take some time and learn how things work and give Mr. Johnson a chance. But the time has come to do what’s right for the tax payers and I’m comfortable with my decision,” Woellner said.
Johnson voiced disappointment over the mayor’s actions Wednesday afternoon.
“I am extremely disappointed in the mayor and at this point I don’t want to say anything else until the promised Committee of the Whole meeting. There is nothing else to say at this point. The mayor cannot remove a city administrator; only the council can. It will be up to them to make the right decision and I believe they will,” Johnson said.
Newly appointed Common Council President Ryan Schwartzman declined to comment.
According to Woellner, plans are now for a Committee of the Whole meeting to be called for 5 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 6. The meeting will initially be open to the public, but will then convene to closed session given the nature of the subject matter. If the committee takes action in favor of terminating Johnson’s employment with the city, the matter would require Common Council approval on Tuesday, Aug. 6. If the committee opts to retain Johnson’s employment, he will remain in his current City Administrator capacity.
Johnson has served as Merrill City Administrator since April of 2012.