Sandusky commissioners plan to evaluate city manager Nicole Ard on her performance from October 2011, her hire date, through today.
The process, lasting up to 30 days, involves each commissioner assessing Ard’s achievements and failures. “We’ll each give our own review of how she has done throughout the past year and a half,” city commissioner Keith Grohe said. “We’ll then come to a consensus of how she’s doing.”
Ard doesn’t appear anxious for a review. In March, she publicly disputed any notion that she’s required to undergo an evaluation.
She indicated someone waived the clause during an informal gathering weeks before commissioners actually hired her. “That is not true,” ex officio mayor John Hamilton said. In fact, two city contracts clearly state she must undergo an evaluation. Ard signed one of the contracts upon her hire. The other involved commissioners spending $20,000 to conduct a nationwide search for a city manager. “I want to ensure the citizens of Sandusky that this provision of this contract was never waived, formally or informally,” said former city commissioner Dick Brady, who supervised the hiring process. There is no record of the provision ever being waived.
“This is a service the city has paid for, and we are entitled to it,” city commissioner Diedre Cole said.
Ard’s hesitance at undergoing a performance review may have something to do with the harsh criticism recently leveled against her. Case in point: In June, she skipped a finance committee meeting where certified public accounts discussed an audit detailing Sandusky’s recent revenues and expenses. The accountants all volunteer their time in offering guidance on Sandusky’s budget.
“I would probably refer you to a closed section in my contract,” said Ard, referring to her claimed right to miss the meeting.
It’s unclear what section of her contract stipulates she can skip finance committee meetings without reason. “Show me in your contract where it says that?” finance committee chairman Allen Nickles said. “I’m speechless. Her response is an embarrassment and a slap in the face to the committee.”
A dozen goals
A Register analysis published in January determined Ard, who is paid about $126,000 a year, failed to complete or did not address 12 goals officials established for her in 2012.
The story relied on city data and sources to determine Ard, at the time, did not fully accomplish the goals. Six months later, initiatives still lacking in resolution include:
• Determining a work plan to sell water and sewer services to additional customers. In November, the city filed an $8.5 million lawsuit against Erie County relating to a water dispute. There has been no public discussion on the lawsuit, nor has a work plan been developed. County officials, meanwhile, contend the city forgot to bill about $2.2 million for water dispensed over the past three years. This would include about $260,000 in delinquent water bills owed by Joe Yost, whose negligence led city officials to shut off the water service at Hoppers mobile park. This decision has forced about 30 Hoppers residents to move elsewhere.
• Cooperate with nearby governments: The lawsuit seemingly tarnished any working relationship Ard could have with local governments, according to Erie County commissioners Bill Monaghan and Pat Shenigo.
• Review current commission priority projects and develop management system to track key projects. There’s no evidence — documents or public discussion — showing Ard mentioning any of these items at length. Her city manager reports are often sparse, mostly consisting of listing donations given to the city.
• Continue implementation of vision for downtown development. Ard has spurred little public discussion about efforts to improve the downtown business district. Achievements›
• Hiring a police chief: Ard named longtime Sandusky police commander John Orzech as chief in early April. Orzech had to endure a year-long process in which city officials conducted two separate searches. Volunteers and officials botched the first search by failing to follow Sandusky’s laws outlining criteria for hiring police chiefs. A Register investigation in September 2012 concluded three of the initial five finalists were ineligible for police chief consideration. After the article published, committee members decided to restart the process. The search process cost taxpayers $33,000, effectively spending an extra $7,800 on a second round of candidates.
• Provide a balanced budget to commissioners: In March 2012, Ard submitted a red-ink budget forecasting a $353,000 deficit for 2012. Commissioners approved the deficit budget after 10 minutes of discussion. While Sandusky did break even in 2012, major problems are looming in 2013 and beyond. For 2013, Ard’s $16 million balanced budget is far too optimistic, Nickles contends. “My concern is we have not mapped out a plan as to what’s going to happen if we don’t meet the budget this year,” Nickles said. “If they don’t meet the budget, what are they going to do?” One solution involves cutting the city’s workforce by more than 10 percent. Earlier this year, Ard provided commissioners with a list of potential cuts, including eliminating up to 27 city jobs by 2014, totaling about $2.2 million in savings. She did not, however, indicate how those cuts could be made.
Grohe said he has wanted to evaluate Ard for some time, but a commission severed by emotions halted such a review. “We held off on the evaluation because there was too much turmoil between commissioners,” said Grohe, the city’s human resources liaison.
There has been a clear divide among city commissioners, with one set — Pervis Brown, Julie Farrar and Jeff Smith, ardent supporters of Ard — at odds against Diedre Cole and Wes Poole, who have frequently raised questions about Ard’s performance. Grohe and Hamilton haven’t expressed a strong opinion either way. “I would hope the commission would settle down and not fight within itself,” Grohe said. “The commission is picking itself apart, and to me that is not a good thing.” At a recent meeting where commissioners announced plans to move forward with the performance review, many city officials laughed.
When asked about this behavior, Grohe condemned it. “That was unprofessional,” Grohe said. “Rest assured, the evaluation will be done professionally.”