We don’t know what’s gotten into the water at two of Flagstaff’s biggest government agencies. But there must be something to account for the top managers at both the city and the county announcing voluntary resignations soon after the new year, then both receiving hefty severance payments – even though their contracts didn’t call for such payouts.
Worse, when asked how, specifically, the payouts were calculated and what specifically they were for, the elected officials who signed off on the agreements were less than forthcoming.
Coconino County Manager Cynthia Seelhammer went first, turning in her voluntary resignation letter contingent upon an unspecified severance but not mentioning she had been looking for another job since November. The supervisors accepted the resignation, which came with a severance of a lump sum of $88,600 and a $10,000 contribution to her deferred compensation plan in exchange for a standard release from all future claims.
Then, a month later, as we report today, supervisors finally produced the most recent version of her contract: no mention of a severance for a voluntary resignation.
When asked why Seelhammer was being paid $99,000 to leave voluntarily – more money than if she had been forced out, according to her contract – supervisors initially demurred, then some said she had done a good job and needed the money to look for new work. That seems like an especially low bar to set for such a generous payout, not to mention that we know of no similar arrangement at other public agencies in this market -- until now.
In hindsight, the way had been smoothed last summer for Seelhammer’s relatively seamless departure. That’s when the supervisors hired Navajo County Manager James Jayne as a special projects manager. On the day of Seelhammer’s departure, Jayne was installed as interim county manager.
Recent emails obtained by the Daily Sun suggest that some supervisors are having second thoughts about the payout to Seelhammer after learning she had been interviewing for jobs elsewhere. If so, our question to the supervisors is why not clarify those concerns with your constituents? Was the payout for a job well done or a cushion while she was out of work after what Seelhammer wrote was a "mutual” decision by the board and herself to leave?
Second to go was Flagstaff City Manager Josh Copley, but unlike Seelhammer, he did not go quietly. His resignation came in a form of a letter to the council -- soon made public -- that blasted two unnamed members for treating him unprofessionally and discourteously, then condemning the entire council for letting such conduct occur.
Copley refused to name names, and all seven councilmembers declined to comment on the letter. But nearly as soon as the ink was dry, the council had promoted Deputy City Manager Barbara Goodrich to take Copley’s place, then paid Copley a severance package worth six months of his salary -- $92,000, plus six months of health insurance coverage – in exchange for release from any claims (even though he had already voluntarily resigned). Apparently you can not only badmouth the council on your way out the door but receive a hefty bonus, too, as long as you agree not to sue them, too.
Clearly, there’s more going on here than generous executive compensation and exit strategies – or at least there should be. If the supervisors and council really believe that the two departed managers deserved those bonuses, they owe taxpayers a detailed list of their accomplishments, how the payment amount was determined and whether such payments will become standard in future top-level recruitment and hiring budgets.
But if not, then full transparency is still the best policy – the reasons usually come out eventually, but at what damage in the meantime to the public trust? We expect local elected officials to show fiscal responsibility in the spending of public funds, and right now, these severance packages for voluntary resignations look like the height of irresponsibility, absent a fuller public explanation.