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City proposes new contracts for department heads
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City proposes new contracts for department heads

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The city is proposing new contracts for its department heads that outline new severance pay guidelines and added protection from being fired for political reasons.

The major change shortens the time that department heads must serve before becoming eligible for severance pay, which is based on their salaries, which range from around $86,000 to $130,000.

The Legal and Finance Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to send the proposal to the Rapid City Council without a recommendation, citing a need for further review. The full council will review the contracts during its 6:30 p.m. meeting on Monday.

Seven contracts were presented Wednesday for Brett Limbaugh, director of Community Planning and Development Services; City Attorney Joel Landeen; Terry Wolterstorff, director of Public Works; Jeff Biegler, director of Parks and Recreation; Finance Officer Pauline Sumption; Jeff Barbier, director of Community Services; and Fire Chief Mike Maltaverne.

In recent months, Police Chief Steve Allender, 52, announced his retirement, effective Friday. Civic Center General Manger Brian Maliske, 50, also threw in the towel. He is stepping down on June 6. 

Contracts for those positions won't surface until they're filled. A contract for Airport Director Cameron Humphres — who took a year-long leave and is working at reduced pay from New Zealand — also has yet to surface. Newly appointed Library Director James McShane is already under contract. 

Mayor Sam Kooiker wrote in a Wednesday memo to the committee that he supports contracts for all 11 of the city's department directors. Since Kooiker took office in 2011, two other directors have resigned and another was fired.

"Although there has been some disagreement about the method of changing the length of terms of office for mayor and council, most people recognize the reality that two-year terms, especially for mayor, are a cause for concern for our department directors and potential job candidates who can be replaced by a new mayor without just cause," Kooiker wrote in the memo.

"We also recognize the unique nature of these director positions, which are not as insulated from politics and political whim as other jobs within the city," Kooiker noted.

He retained former City Attorney Tamara Pier to help draft the contracts, instead of Landeen, to avoid a conflict of interest since Landeen would be affected too.

When a department director is fired, the council is currently tasked with determining whether there was "just cause" for terminating the employee. Under the proposed contracts, that decision would be left to the courts.

"It puts the city council in a tough position, to provide an evidentiary hearing when they're not equipped to do that," Kooiker said after the Wednesday meeting. 

Severance is only payable to employees who are fired without just cause, such as being terminated at the whim of the mayor. City directors are ineligible for severance pay if they quit or are terminated as a result of just cause.

Per state law, the directors will remain as at-will employees, meaning they can be fired for any reason. In other words, they still serve "at the pleasure of the mayor," according to the drafted contracts.

Another proposed change is a six-month probationary period to earn the severance pay cap of six months. The pay is currently tied to the city's short-term disability plan and accrued over the length of employment.

To get all six months, department heads currently need to work for 10 years, according to the City Attorney's Office. Under the proposed contracts, directors would instead be eligible for the six months of severance pay if they complete the probationary period.

Three months of pay is still earned if they're fired within the first six months of employment.

Department heads who receive severance pay would also have to sign a waiver of claims they have against the city, essentially curtailing potential legal battles.

"The reality is that the contracts are something that will help the city down the road, not so much today," Kooiker said. "As our city grows, and as director positions come open, in order to ensure the ability to recruit good candidates, having this process in place helps do that while still ensuring accountability."

Contact John Lee McLaughlin at 394-8421 or john.mclaughlin@rapidcityjournal.com

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The city has proposed employment contracts for seven department directors. With a total of 11 departments, here's a look at what they annually…

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