No smoking gun

It has been months since former Assistant City Manager Londi Lindell and former City Attorney Bob Sterbank left the city under less-than-favorable circumstances. Sterbank was asked to leave in January less than a year after he was hired. Lindell was fired in April. After months of internal strife at City Hall, it was not unexpected.

What happened?

The downfall of the two attorneys appears not to have come not from a serious incident or pattern of misbehavior. No, it seems that it came from a dispute over how a misstep by another city director was handled by city boss Rich Conrad. The city personnel director had intervened improperly on behalf of her husband, also an employee of the city, in a disciplinary matter. Sterbank and Lindell were critical of the way that Conrad handled what he considered to be a minor incident. The attorneys, however, went much further and intimated that there was an atmosphere of favoritism and improper relationships between senior staff members.

Could it be?

Since Lindell’s departure, the Reporter has tried to determine if such an environment existed and why both attorneys were ousted. The Reporter has requested records on three different occasions from the city and has spoken with many familiar with the events. The city has obliged so far with a mountain of documents that include e-mails, minutes of meetings and reports by consultants concerning the initial incident with the human resources director, its aftermath and the circumstances surrounding the dismissal of Lindell and Sterbank. We have sifted through nearly 2,000 pages of e-mails exchanged between city directors from September 2007 to April 2008 to gain insight. The sheer volume of paper, however, was not matched by any revealing content. We have not seen all that we have requested from the city and a good deal of information is not available for us to review. There could yet be something revealing in the next mountain of paper, but not likely.

How such a seemingly minor incident blew up into such a time-consuming nightmare is something that anyone who has worked in a group can understand. The words office politics, petty jealously and resentment quickly come to mind. It is still mind-blowing that highly educated and otherwise responsible adults can exhibit this type of behavior. Worse, these sentiments are expensive in the workplace. Hours and hours of time and money were spent on meetings, consultants and even a retreat in Eastern Washington leading up to the departure of these two senior staffers.

Questions do remain.

Did Conrad handle the incident with his head of personnel correctly? Who knows. Being a manager is an inexact science. Have changes been made to address personnel issues to prevent future problems? Yes. Was letting go of Lindell and Sterbank a risky and possibly expensive move? Perhaps.

Was it time to move on and get back to work? Yes.

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