City manager, council member blame disagreement on lack of cooperation

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Jake Magee
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

JANESVILLE—City Manager Mark Freitag and Councilman Jens Jorgensen want city staff and the council to work cooperatively, but for different reasons, neither thinks that's happening.

Typically, when the council president or two council members ask city staff to do research for an agenda item, staff will comply. That didn't happen when Jorgensen, with Councilwoman Carol Tidwell as his second, requested staff draft an ordinance the council could use as a basis for discussion on the city manager's consultant spending.

Freitag said he declined Jorgensen's request in part because he didn't believe Jorgensen was being cooperative.

Jorgensen doesn't understand Freitag's resistance and wonders if it's evidence he's hiding something.

“I hope that's not what going on here, but ...” Jorgensen said.

“That's ridiculous,” Freitag said of such allegations.

In January and February, Jorgensen went to city employees and requested they research and analyze data related to how much Janesville and peer cities spend on consultants. Jorgensen also requested assistant city attorney Tim Wellnitz draft an ordinance to restrict how much the city manager can spend on consultants without council approval.

Employees told Jorgensen they'd get to work, but when he returned to City Hall to check on their progress, he was told to talk to Freitag.

Freitag explained he wouldn't allow staff to spend time researching a topic without knowing how the rest of the council felt about it. Freitag works for the council as a whole, not just Jorgensen and Tidwell, Freitag said.

Jorgensen was shocked. The move was unusual.

Historically, staff would comply with requests such as the one Jorgensen and Tidwell made.

Freitag said he denied their request for several reasons:

— Jorgensen wasn't being cooperative in his request, Freitag said.

Whenever staff asked Jorgensen if he needed further help or why he was after the information he sought, Jorgensen didn't respond, Freitag said.

“This was trying to work around the city manager and the city processes in order to affect some result,” he said. “The last thing this has been is cooperative.”

— Jorgensen didn't provide an example of a problem he was trying to solve with an ordinance that would restrict Freitag's consultant spending. Jorgensen went from a perceived problem he didn't explain to the solution of drafting an ordinance, Freitag said.

“That's not how good organizations do problem solving,” he said.

— The turnaround Jorgensen expected was too quick. He asked Freitag on Feb. 22 to research the issue and draft an ordinance by March 27, which was too soon. Staff time was limited with other work, Freitag said.

Jorgensen maintains the work he requested wouldn't have taken a lot of time or resources.

Freitag said his decision to decline Jorgensen's request was within his rights but was the exception to the rule and certainly won't become the norm.

“Currently, there is no statute, ordinance or policy ... that says that I or any city member or city staff has to do research, provide analysis or do work just because two council members say they want to do something,” Freitag said.

What Freitag doesn't have the right to do, officials said, is decline two council members or the president from putting an item on the agenda, which is why the council discussed the consulting issue Feb. 27 with no information or facts available.

Freitag wanted to see if at least four council members—a majority—wanted the city to research how it spends on consultants before beginning the research. To Jorgensen, such an idea was inefficient, he said.

With no facts or research in hand when discussing a topic, it's difficult to convince other council members, Jorgensen said.

“How am I supposed to do my job as a council member if you're not allowing staff to do research on what I'm trying to do?” Jorgensen said.

Had Jorgensen requested an agenda item for March 13, staff would have had time to do some basic research and fact-finding for the council to use during its discussion, Freitag said. Jorgensen wanted the discussion Feb. 27, less than a week from his request, which didn't provide staff enough time, Freitag said.

Jorgensen and Tidwell believe Freitag's refusal to research the agenda item at their request is evidence of his lack of cooperation.

“We've always been under the practice, if it's going to be on the agenda, let's do some research. … All these roadblocks that seem to be popping up are new,” Jorgensen said.

“My whole thing is I don't understand where this resistance is coming from,” he said.

Jorgensen compared the situation to playing a game with a child who makes up new rules as he goes.

“Ideally, and historically, the city manager and the council have worked together for the betterment of the city, and I would hope that that happens again, but based on the apparent failure to provide consultant data, I am concerned,” Tidwell said.

If two council members want city staff to research a topic, it should, Jorgensen said.

“It's not too much to ask for,” he said.

Some might say council members could ask employees to research frivolous topics, but “we're all adults here,” Jorgensen said. If council members are purposefully wasting staff time, Jorgensen hopes they would be voted out of office, he said.

Under Janesville's council-manager style of government, the city manager is the council's sole employee. The more than 500 city employees work for Freitag, Freitag said.

Council members can still request research and information directly from department and division heads, as Jorgensen did. Whenever that happens, the directors tell Freitag so he stays in the loop or, as in this case, stops employees from using staff time so Freitag can talk to council members himself.

Regardless of how it has played out so far, both parties want to get back to cooperating.

Freitag wants city staff and the council to continue a partnership of making Janesville better, but part of that includes using staff time wisely, Freitag said.

In a text message to The Gazette, Jorgensen said he wants to work on his promise to bring family-supporting jobs to Janesville.

“To do that,” he wrote, “we need everyone to work together.”

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