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Ann Arbor Mayor: There's No Smoking Gun Behind Firing City Admin., Calls It A "Political Power Play"

Feb 19, 2020

Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor.
Credit Lisa Barry

Saying the residents of Ann Arbor and the reputation of the city will suffer for "years to come," Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor calls the City Council firing of city administrator Howard Lazarus a political termination.  WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with the mayor following the move that now leaves the city without several key leaders.


The Ann Arbor City Council voted 7 to 4 February 18th, 2020 to terminate the contract with current city administrator Howard Lazarus.  Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor was among those voting against the move, saying it was a "grave public error that degrades the goal of government in the city."  The mayor adding that Lazarus did nothing wrong and believes the vote to oust him was politically motivated.

Those on Ann Arbor City Council who voted in favor of firing the city administrator say they believe it's in the best interest of the city, and it's being handled respectfully.  The firing takes effect February 29th, and Lazarus will receive $275,000 in compensation.

WEMU reached out to several city council members who supported the move and did not hear back.

Mayor Taylor issued the following statement on his Facebook page:

The termination of the City Administrator -- Pure Ego.

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“A POLITICAL TERMINATION”

Ann Arbor has always prided itself in transparency, professionalism, and good government. Today, the Council majority tarnishes this hard-earned legacy.

Against my strong objection, the City Council majority has removed City Administrator Howard Lazarus. This action will waste more than $275,000 of taxpayer money and, as the Council majority admits, is entirely without cause. Mr. Lazarus has done nothing wrong. This is a political termination that is bad for Ann Arbor.

The Council majority has used its power and squandered $275,000 as part of a proxy war – “He listens to the Mayor and not to us”. Nothing more. The truth is, however, like any good professional, Mr. Lazarus’s approach has been simple – he listens to everyone and then he follows the rules. This was his downfall. He insisted upon following Council resolutions and community-generated plans approved in open session, rather than acceding to backroom demands. He insisted upon presenting projects supported by engineering principles and best practices, instead of letting Councilmembers redline plans. He insisted that our outstanding staff be free to do their jobs in service to the public without aggressive micromanagement or political interference. Mr. Lazarus is forced out today as a direct result of his integrity and exemplary strength of character.

The majority exercises power tonight because it can, not because it will improve the provision of services or advance Ann Arbor’s priorities. Indeed, the opposite is true. Staff can’t look forward if they’re looking over their back. The majority’s legacy to the community is the degradation of good government. The majority’s legacy to staff is intimidation. If you don’t do what we say behind closed doors, you’ll lose your job. For his resolve in the face of pressure, Mr. Lazarus should receive praise. Instead, he was threatened, hounded, and eventually terminated.

In addition to throwing away $275,000 to remove Mr. Lazarus without cause, the Council majority is decapitating our municipal government at a delicate time when we need Mr. Lazarus’s careful, no-drama leadership more than ever. The Council majority acts to remove the City’s Chief Executive Officer while:

· We have no Human Resources Director (Resigned)

· We have no Finance Manager (Retired)

· The Police Chief is on administrative leave

· Our $400M+ Budget annual budget is at a critical stage of development

· The Public Services Area Administrator (our lead engineer) will soon retire

· We are amidst crucial negotiations regarding the Gelman Plume

This last bit is particularly wrenching. Mr. Lazarus graduated with engineering degrees from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Johns Hopkins University (M.A. Environmental Engineering), and worked for years coordinating multimillion-dollar engineering projects for the Navy, Army, and Environmental Protection Agency, including extensive experience with respect to groundwater contamination/remediation and hazardous waste cleanups. This is the leader the Council majority without cause is paying $275,000 to walk away – to walk away as we work to finalize our effort to at long last implement meaningful and impactful 1,4-dioxane cleanup.

In the end, residents want their government to work. They want City Hall to improve basic services and enhance quality of life.

Residents demand that we deliver clean water, remove storm water, clean waste water, improve roads, provide professional police, deploy skilled fire fighters, and maintain and provide beautiful, safe parks.

Residents demand that their City take bold, progressive action to expand and fund affordable housing, improve road design and safety for all users, and that we take transformative action to respond to climate change and to achieve carbon neutrality, a vast challenge to which Mr. Lazarus is particularly committed and well suited.

Residents want local government to be efficient, to spend money wisely, to honor professionalism rather than faction, to act based upon rules and community-developed plans rather than arm-twisting and politics.

We can meet these challenges with a professional, engaged, energetic, and empowered leaders and staff. Without these dedicated public servants, we can do nothing.

Tonight the Council majority has wasted $275,000. Without cause, they have forced out a leader of skill, character, and integrity and reduced the ability of our amazing staff members to provide the basic services upon which we all rely and envision the quality of life improvements that express our best aspirations.

Mr. Lazarus worked every day for Ann Arbor with intelligence, grace, and honor, to provide basic services and deliver real and meaningful change in pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and climate action. The Council majority’s campaign of backroom pressure has culminated tonight in a grave public error. Ann Arbor, its residents and its reputation, will suffer from this deeply unwise decision for years to come.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu