Newly released documents related to the departure of Coconino County Manager Cynthia Seelhammer last month show at least two county supervisors were frustrated with or now regret voting for a severance package that included nearly $99,000 in additional compensation for the departing employee not required in her contract.
In an email that was provided in response to a public records request from the Daily Sun, Supervisor Art Babbott called Seelhammer’s involvement in negotiating her severance payments “manipulative.”
The documents also show that the county wasn’t obligated to provide Seelhammer any severance pay because, according to Supervisor Matt Ryan, chair of the board, she resigned voluntarily, without any request from county supervisors.
But Seelhammer has a different take on her resignation letter. Before she left, Seelhammer wrote an email that she asked be sent out to employees. The email states: “The Board of Supervisors and I mutually agreed that it is time for me to end my employment with Coconino County and step down as County Manager. As all professional government managers know, this is part of the profession. The Board is elected to their office specifically to choose the Manager and set the direction for the County.”
Seelhammer officially resigned Jan. 9, but she and county officials discussed and negotiated her severance agreement before that.
Seelhammer’s employment contract stated she would receive a severance payment equal to four months of her annual salary, only if she resigned following a request, either formal or informal, from a majority of the board to do so. In the event of a voluntary resignation, the employment contract didn’t require severance pay.
After negotiations, though, Seelhammer ended up with six months’ pay —$88,600 — as well as a $10,000 contribution by the county to her deferred compensation plan.
“It comes back to that Cynthia did a really good job,” Ryan said in explaining the board’s decision to provide a compensation package. In an interview on the day of the resignation, Ryan also said Seelhammer needed the severance payments to have enough time to look for another job or professional opportunity.
Then news came out that Seelhammer had been applying for at least one other job as early as November. On Jan. 15, less than a week after Seelhammer had resigned, boardmembers found out via email that she had been named as a finalist for city administrator in Breezy Point, Minnesota, though she didn't end up getting the job.
In an email to fellow boardmember Liz Archuleta, Babbott wrote: “This would have been great info to have prior to the severance agreement discussion. Shows how manipulative that process was on her part as she was actively looking back in November. Voting for the severance agreement will definitely go into my ‘votes i would do over’ had i know (sic) this.”
A day later, Archuleta responded, writing “my thoughts exactly. That’s why she wanted to tie down the contract on Jan 3rd... to do that before word got out she had already applied for jobs. She knew Breezy Point was going to announce finalists on Jan 4th and that word would have gotten out by the 9th.”
In a subsequent interview with the Daily Sun, Archuleta said her email expressed some frustration and was “unfiltered and honest.”
She said she felt she made the best decision she could with the information she had at the time, and said she didn’t know how she would have voted differently with more details about Seelhammer’s previous job search.
Babbott said his email speaks for itself.
“Had I known that the hardworking county manager had been actively looking for other employment well in advance of her evaluation, I would not have supported the severance package,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “The reality is in order for us to make good decisions on behalf of taxpayers we need to have complete information in order to make the best decisions.”
Ryan said he still feels comfortable with the board’s vote on Seelhammer’s severance package.
The board had begun a yearlong evaluation of Seelhammer’s performance last year that was slated to be completed by February, so it wasn't finished before she left, county spokesman Matt Rudig said.
Previous versions of the severance agreement that were drafted in early January show the county would originally have paid out seven months’ pay or about $103,000 plus nearly $17,000 in contributions to Seelhammer’s deferred compensation plan. Those drafts also included almost $36,000 in payments for accrued vacation time while the final severance package had much less — $8,700 — in accrued vacation payouts.
Seelhammer declined a request to comment further this week.
"I am honoring the requirements of the severance agreement and will not be speaking about this matter," she wrote in an email. "I loved my time at the County and I miss the talented staff every day. It’s an extraordinary community of extraordinary people."
Other emails that were included in the county's response to a Daily Sun public records request show at least three residents reached out to the supervisors to question or express disapproval with their approval of severance compensation for Seelhammer.
“I would like you to know that I am extremely disappointed in the county board of supervisors approval of a severance package for an employee who quit her job,” Jim Madden wrote. “The $90,000.00 you just gave away belongs to us, not you.”