Mayor cites experience, unreached goals in firing of city administrator

Jefferson City Mayor Eric Struemph responds to reporters’ questions about the firing of City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus, who was fired after Monday night’s closed door personnel session.

Jefferson City Mayor Eric Struemph responds to reporters’ questions about the firing of City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus, who was fired after Monday night’s closed door personnel session. Photo by Julie Smith.

Citing a lack of experience and failure to meet laid out goals, Mayor Eric Struemph requested City Administrator Nathan Nickolaus be fired Monday, and the City Council agreed.

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Nathan Nickolaus

But Nickolaus says he met the goals required of him and was surprised by the council’s decision to let him go.

The council voted 8-2 to fire Nickolaus in a closed session Monday after a standard evaluation of his performance. Fourth Ward Councilwoman Carrie Carroll and 3rd Ward Councilman Ken Hussey were the sole opposing votes.

Carroll said Nickolaus, who was not in the closed session, was blamed for issues concerning a proposal for floating holidays during the budget sessions and for not doing enough to promote the conference center or plant more positive stories in the press.

“They completely bashed him (Nickolaus) in closed session,” Carroll said. “I thought it was disrespectful ... I think it’s the cowardly way to do it.”

“It’s depressing, it’s low, it’s bad for morale.”

Carroll said Struemph was angry and set on firing Nickolaus during the closed session.

Struemph said the closed session was meant to go through his evaluation of Nickolaus and, through discussion, they discovered there were many issues that still existed with Nickolaus, though Struemph declined to go into specifics or confirm Carroll’s comments concerning what was discussed.

“I did not go into this thinking this is the end ... I didn’t go into it counting votes,” Struemph said. “In several different areas, we were just heading in different directions.”

Struemph said the city has to work with different “strategic partners,” including the Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce and state agencies, and Nickolaus didn’t have the needed experience to handle those relationships.

“That lack of experience was hurting him in that position. You can’t teach experience,” Struemph said. “I think due to past history on several different issues, there was no doubt ... that we didn’t have an experienced person that could take us forward on ... some fronts.”

But Nickolaus lacked experience as a city administrator from the start. Nickolaus was promoted to the position on an interim basis in May 2011, after the city fired former City Administrator Steve Rasmussen. At that time, Struemph said the reason for Rasmussen’s firing was that Struemph wanted his own management team on board.

Prior to that, Nickolaus had served as city attorney since 2003. In December 2011, the council made the position permanent and, at the time, Struemph said Nickolaus had proven himself during the interim period.

When asked about that Tuesday, Struemph said it’s common to promote people in-house “who don’t necessarily have the experience to go to the next level, but they get there somehow.”

“In this case, we tried that,” Struemph said. “And unfortunately, after a couple years, we just found ourselves in a spot where we had to be honest with ourselves and say this isn’t moving forward.”

Struemph said he solicited input from the community on the city administrator position in the past couple of weeks and he views the vote to fire Nickolaus as not just a council decision, but one that’s reflective of the community’s opinion.

Struemph also made comments Tuesday that the city has “one of the largest economic booms” ahead and needs an experienced leader during that time.

The comments are similar to ones expressed in May 2011 when Rasmussen was fired.

Struemph was quoted at that time by the News Tribune as saying, “I feel that the City Council and myself felt that it was time to move forward with a new management team to help our city, with the largest economic boom in our history being right around the corner.”

According to minutes of Monday night’s closed session actions, Struemph requested a motion to terminate Nickolaus’ contract, which was made by 5th Ward Councilman Ralph Bray and seconded by 2nd Ward Councilman J. Rick Mihalevich. Council members then entered into “a lengthy discussion” before taking up the vote to fire Nickolaus.

Nickolaus said he was not in the room for any portion of the closed session and was not informed until after the meeting ended, when Struemph told him.

“I was surprised and obviously saddened,” Nickolaus said. “I think I have done some good work for the city, and I’m proud of the accomplishments, and I wish the city the best.”

In February, the City Council met in a closed session for personnel, under two subsections: one for the “hiring, firing, disciplining or promoting of particular employees by a public governmental body” and one for “individually identifiable personnel records, performance ratings or records pertaining to employees or applicants for employment.”

It was later revealed through an email obtained by a Sunshine request filed by the News Tribune that Struemph had approached another city employee about taking on the interim city administrator position prior to that meeting, which was used to discuss Struemph’s earlier evaluation of Nickolaus.

After the February closed session, council members said there were concerns that needed to be addressed, but no one provided any details as to what those concerns were. Those later led to a list of goals Nickolaus needed to achieve.

Struemph said he did an evaluation of 2012-13 goals that Nickolaus was instructed to complete earlier this year, and found Nickolaus had not met them sufficiently.

“As we got in there (Monday night), it was pretty evident to me that there was an awful lot of people who shared that these goals were not being met,” Struemph said. “A lot of these issues were issues that had been brought up in other evaluations.”

But Nickolaus said he had been led to believe those goals had been met. He said he was given a list of 20 to 30 goals earlier this year, some with specific dates to be completed by, which he did.

Some of those goals, he said, were:

• To develop a plan to resolve the issues that had contributed to the city’s budget shortfall early this year and develop corrective actions for those;

• To develop a draft of the 2014 budget;

• To provide a list of long- and short-term goals;

• To develop a media plan to present the city in the best possible light and minimize the need for damage control; and

• To negotiate with the state for the property needed on West McCarty Street for a proposed conference center.

“They reviewed those goals, and the council felt that they had been met,” Nickolaus said. “That was the decision that was made (months earlier) ... we went over them one by one and talked about them.”

Nickolaus said he had been approached by Struemph late last month about a brief post on the city’s Facebook page encouraging support for Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a controversial tax-cuts bill, which stated if the veto was over-ridden Jefferson City could lose hundreds of jobs.

At the time, Struemph told the News Tribune he believed the post reflected a policy issue that should have been voted on by the council.

Nickolaus said, at the time, Struemph asked him why he was making policy decisions, and Nickolaus replied that the city had a long-standing policy of being against that bill.

“We’d been sending weekly updates to the council on all of the bills that we were opposed to, including that one,” Nickolaus said. “And we sent a lot of email notifications about why cities were opposed to it.”

He added that council members were invited to, and some attended, a meeting of the Missouri Municipal League that included discussion of the bill. The league had voted to oppose the bill.

“As I pointed out to the mayor, he was on the committee that voted on that,” Nickolaus said. “So I was kind of surprised when the Facebook (post) had such a strong reaction because it was a bill that we had been opposing for a long, long time.”

Nickolaus said he does not know what he will do next, though he has some options to look into.

City attorney Drew Hilpert, who has been named to the interim city administrator position, said Nickolaus’ contract stipulates Nickolaus receive three months salary as severance pay. As city administrator, Nickolaus earned $122,000 a year.

Today's related stories:

Hilpert named interim city administrator

Council discusses interim positions at City Hall

Accompanying photos:

Mayor Struemph addresses the news media

Nathan Nickolaus

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