Mayor Ron Anders extended City Manager Jim Buston’s contract for an additional year without official approval from the City Council, creating tension between councilmembers during the Council’s meeting Feb. 5.
Buston had previously planned on retiring several years ago, before pushing the date back to 2019. He will push that retirement date again after a request from Anders and a $20,000 per year pay raise.
Councilmember Kelley Griswold asked the Council to consider amending the 2018-19 budget ordinance by adding a statement that would require the Council to approve any changes the mayor makes regarding the city manager’s terms of contract.
“I was hoping to add a single sentence to that ordinance saying that any modification should be approved by the Council as a whole,” Griswold said. “As the contract is between the Council and the city manager.”
The ordinance in question gives the mayor executive right to modify the contract agreement of the city manager. While this matter was brought up, Anders approved of a contract modification, extending Buston’s contract to end in 2020 instead of 2019.
“The majority of the Council agreed at the last committee of the whole to discuss this tonight,” Griswold said. “But unknown to me and the Council as a whole, a contract modification granting a salary increase and contract extension had already been signed prior to our last meeting.”
With a one-year extension, the contract modification also approved a $20,000 per-year increase to the city manager’s salary. Councilmember Griswold brought this up at Tuesday’s meeting.
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“I don’t know if others have seen the contract, I haven’t, but I’ve been told the contract changes far exceed the $15,000 threshold over the 2018-19 budget,” Griswold said. “Procedurally, I’m not sure how this action could have been taken at that amount without City Council approval.”
Griswold requested the city staff research how to change or add to an existing policy or enact an ordinance to ensure the contracts between city manager and City Council are reviewed for approval by the entire council.
“I just thought the Council ought to have a role to play,” Griswold said. “It’s not a matter of Mr. Buston, it’s not a matter of the term, it’s a matter of the Council should have a role, but the city’s interpretation of the ordinance says the mayor can do it on his own.”
Griswold said he read through the ordinance and found it to be unclear. He wants to clarify the ordinance for future use.
“I got a copy of the ordinance, and to me, it’s not that clear,” Griswold said. “It says he can sign it. It doesn’t say he can negotiate it. It doesn’t say he can determine the terms, so I want to clarify it.”
Buston spoke about his side of the matter, saying he had planned on retiring in the end of 2019 until Anders asked him to stay another year.
“I had actually planned on retiring two years ago, but things happen, and I told everyone that by the end of 2019 I was going to retire,” Buston said. “The mayor asked if I would consider staying at least one year more, so I agreed.”
Buston said that officially in Auburn, the city manager’s contract doesn’t have a set end date, and the manager can continue their work until they decide to leave or the City Council dismisses them.
“The ordinance doesn’t give the mayor the authority to create a contract,” Buston said. “But it gives him the power to amend it, so that’s what he did, and in this case that happened to be an increase in salary.”
Anders explained his reasoning for extending Buston’s contract for a year was to provide a cushion of stability for the Council, which is comprised of several new members and for himself as a new mayor.
“My intention was to get Mr. Buston to stay until December of 2020, and I felt like the Council, with all of us being new, with me being a new mayor, that we needed him here to get us through that point,” Anders said. “Which would give us, the Council, a couple years to really understand the kind of person we want to take his place one day.”
Anders said he asked multiple councilmembers for their opinion on the matter and felt the right thing to do was to proceed with extending Buston’s contract to the end of 2020.
“I received a positive response from the majority of the councilmembers, so I moved forward with signing the contract,” Anders said. “It’s my opinion that it is in the best interest of the city for Mr. Buston to be here and stabilize the process the entire way.”
Councilmembers Tommy Dawson, Beth Witten and Brett Smith each expressed their approval of Anders’ decision.
Each of the members said they believed Anders was well within his right to approve the contract and that councilmembers should trust the leadership of the mayor.
On the other side, councilmember Bob Parsons said he agrees with Griswold and thinks there is still room for discussion.
“I was looking forward to discussing this Council’s further participation in matters that affect everybody,” Parsons said. “I think there is still room for language to be created, plus, also some calm, thoughtful opportunity for us all to deliberate.”
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