After less than 18 months on the job, Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson was fired last week from her position as the city’s top administrator.
The Moab City Council voted 3-1 during a special meeting on Friday, Sept. 30, to terminate Davidson’s three-year contract “without cause,” or for reasons that are not related to misconduct. Council member Heila Ershadi voted against the majority, and Rani Derasary was absent from the meeting.
The move came just 17 days after Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison placed Davidson on paid administrative leave, pending an outside legal counsel’s investigation of unspecified “internal issues.”
Under the terms of her contract, Davidson received a lump-sum severance payment equal to nine months of her annual base salary, which stood at $115,000 when the city hired her in March 2015.
Davidson could not be reached for comment.
In a prepared statement, the city thanked Davidson for her “hard work” and her efforts to address many important issues that the city faces, including the time she spent on projects to upgrade the city’s infrastructure.
Since the council’s decision to terminate Davidson involves personnel-related matters, Moab City Council member Kyle Bailey said he is not at liberty to discuss the issue.
“I’m pretty limited (in what I can say),” Bailey told the Moab Sun News. “There are a lot of constitutional issues out there.”
Ershadi said it was impossible for her to make an informed decision without all of the facts, such as those dealing with last month’s departure of former Moab City Police Chief Mike Navarre, and employee turnover within the police department.
The police department has also faced allegations of misconduct involving two former officers accused of drinking alcohol with minors at an underage party. Several other officers have reportedly been put on administrative leave, or placed on “corrective action plans,” according to a person who asked to remain anonymous.
Most recently, the city spent nearly $34,000 on an outside legal counsel’s investigation of issues that appear to involve the police department. However, that Salt Lake City firm’s report has been heavily redacted, since it seems to focus on personnel-related matters that are largely out of the public view.
“The public does not have all the facts, and frankly, neither does the Moab City Council,” Ershadi said. “We do have a lot of red flags. Soaring legal bills, Internal Affairs investigations, rumors of possible other investigations, high turnover in the police department, and the swift, unexpected departure of our Chief of Police are one handful of these flags.”
Ershadi said she won’t say whether the decision to terminate Davidson’s contract was – or was not – the correct course of action.
“I am saying that I do not approve of making major decisions with serious contextual questions left unanswered,” she said.
Moab City Council member Kalen Jones said that even without more knowledge, he believes that a “nay” vote – or no action on the motion to terminate Davidson’s contract – could have worse consequences for the city than a “yes” vote.
“I think that’s another thing that we as council members have to weigh,” Jones told the Moab Sun News.
Derasary, who was out of town on a previously scheduled break, said she’s hesitant to say with full certainty how she would have voted, since she wasn’t there to hear the council’s discussion.
“What I can say is, I have confidence in the council and the decision they made,” Derasary said.
Controversy followed Davidson to job with city
As some commenters on social media sites have noted, the council’s decision to fire Davidson was not necessarily unexpected, based on her history as administrator of the Town of Timnath, Colorado, and the City of Kemmerer, Wyoming.
Davidson was previously involved in a protracted legal battle that pitted a Colorado contractor against the Town of Timnath. The town eventually settled that lawsuit, which came after contract workers accidentally struck a gas line and blew up the Timnath Presbyterian Church in 2009.
With support from that town’s council, Davidson ordered contractors to stop their work, the Coloradoan newspaper of Fort Collins reported. The project builder went on to sue the town and Davidson, claiming that it was owed for work it had already completed, according to the Coloradoan.
The town eventually placed Davidson on paid leave, and she left her job in early 2011. Both sides signed a “nondisparagement” clause that prevented them from speaking publicly about her departure, the Coloradoan reported.
Davidson went on to work for the City of Kemmerer, Wyoming, where she remained until shortly after the City of Moab hired her in March 2015. Even before she left that job the following month, the Moab Sun News received numerous emails from past and present Kemmerer residents who criticized Davidson’s actions as city administrator.
In a March 26, 2015, email message, a former Kemmerer resident wrote that Davidson was “pretty much being run out of Kemmerer on a rail.”
That person – and others – were sharply critical of Davidson’s management syle, which led to the departures or firings of numerous city department heads and employees in Kemmerer, including its police chief, as well as its arts and events director.
“This woman has some seriously anti-social tendencies, and she is going to be run out of Moab before long, too,” the person said.
Despite those criticisms, Davidson rose to the top of the 57 candidates and eight finalists who applied for the job as Moab’s top administrator. Shortly after the city hired her, Sakrison praised Davidson for her background in engineering, as well as her human resources skills.
“Her experience was paramount,” the mayor said in March 2015. “She’s had a broad range of municipal experiences dealing with large capital improvement projects, along with human resources. She covers the bases pretty well.”
Just a few months into the job, though, Davidson upset many in the commmunity when the city terminated, or “restructured,” the positions of longtime city employees David Olsen and Ken Davey.
Davidson has said the city needed to reorganize its previous organizational structure, which appeared to be “kind of jumbled,” and pulled her in different directions. Before the city implemented the changes, Davidson received 11 direct reports from city department heads. But under the reorganization, she said, fewer departments would report directly to her.
The two men’s friends and supporters were skeptical of that justification, though, and they raised questions about other possible motives behind the decision to fire Olsen and Davey.
The criticisms of Davidson continued when former Moab City Public Works Director Jeff Foster resigned in January 2016, telling the Moab Sun News that he could no longer work under the conditions that “management” created. Foster’s position has remained vacant since he left the job.
Following the departures of Foster and others, Davidson said she had no idea how to respond to concerns that the loss of prominent, longtime city employees has created a climate of “fear and paranoia” among others.
“If there’s a sense that something’s wrong there, I don’t know what it is,” Davidson said in March 2016.
At that time, Sakrison defended Davidson, saying that she actively worked on the goals that the city council laid out for her, including efforts to address Moab’s affordable housing crisis, and the growing number of special events in the community.
Jones sees support for more transparency at council meetings
Many of the decisions that Davidson was involved with originated during executive closed sessions that are not open to the public or the media.
Since Davidson took the reins as city manager, the council has held nearly two dozen closed sessions to discuss personnel matters or “pending or reasonably imminent” litigation. In comparison, the council held seven closed sessions during former Moab City Manager Donna Metzler’s last 12 months on the job, and three of those sessions were held in the weeks before Metzler resigned to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher.
Jones said he understands the importance of avoiding closed-session discussions, in cases when nothing is stopping the council from discussing specific issues out in the open.
“I can say for myself and a number of other council members that there is a desire to conduct our business as openly as possible, and it seems like staff is aware of that, as well,” he said.
However, the identity of a candidate to replace Davidson in the short term remained a secret that the city kept to itself, as of earlier this week.
The council is scheduled to review a contract with that person for the interim city manager position on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 5:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.
Bailey said the interim manager can alleviate the weeks-long burden on Moab City Recorder Rachel Stenta, who has served as acting city manager in Davidson’s absence.
“She was a bit overwhelmed during that time, and she’s even more overwhelmed now,” Bailey said. “She can’t do both jobs. Hiring an interim (city manager) would give us a chance … to develop what we want to see in a new city manager and allow us time to search for a manager.”
Council votes 3-1 to terminate Rebecca Davidson’s three-year contract