City could face budget crisis if Mayor Neal Knight's plan comes to fruition

Cornelius Mayor Neal Knight again says he wants to fire the city's manager, Dave Waffle, but doing so now may cause a budget crisis in the small western Washington County city.

Knight, who was elected last year to the post along with two city councilors on a slate, has brought the issue of firing Waffle to the table before. In January, Knight was on the losing side of a 4-1 vote to delay any further discussion of Waffle's employment until at least August, when the city will finish preparing its budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year.

But Knight now says he wants to hold a hearing on Monday, June 6 to fire Waffle, ahead of the approval of the city's budget. Knight also wants to eliminate the city's General Services Fee, which brings about $500,000 into the city's coffers each year.

It's not clear what triggered the change in direction.

In fact, last month Knight and his two allies on the council, Mari Gottwald and Jamie Minshall, voted in accord with the city's budget committee to direct Waffle to prepare a budget that kept the General Services Fee in place, but with an 11 percent reduction.

In a work session of the city council in May, the trio also indicated support to Waffle for that plan, and didn't bring up the alternative of eliminating the General Services Fee.

However, about a week later, Knight, Minshall and Gottwald voted against the budget, which still passed the 10-member committee and is the only public financial plan for the city.

Now, Knight says Waffle should have developed a plan to eliminate the general services fee because he made it clear to Waffle when he was elected that he wanted to do so.

Knight said both Minshall and Gottwald have told him they'd like to see Waffle fired. The other members of the city council, Council President Jef Dalin and Councilor Steve Heinrich, want to keep Waffle on the job.

Budget crisis likely

If the council majority goes ahead with firing Waffle and eliminating the fee, both actions will create fiscal havoc.

If the city terminates Waffle, his contract requires the city to pay six months of salary, or about $55,578. Since the city is near the end of its fiscal year, it's not clear there's enough money in the city's coffers to pay the severance until after July 1.

"You need to be aware that there may not be sufficient resources remaining in the budget for the current year to meet the severance benefits of my contract," Waffle wrote in an e-mail to Knight on June 2.

The contract also mentions a requirement to provide health insurance for four months, though it's unclear in its wording if that would be an additional expense.

If Knight wins the votes on the city council to eliminate the General Services Fee from the budget, the city council will have to develop a quick solution, possibly on the dais, to cut $500,000 from the city budget.

If they fail to do so by July 1, the city will effectively shut down.

Without an operating budget, the budget officer (currently Waffle), isn't authorized to spend city funds.

Public body, private directives

While the official meetings of the Cornelius City Council have been relatively quiet affairs over the past two months, a dark storm has been brewing in e-mails and side conversations between city councilors.

Knight said that he's asked Minshall and Gottwald about the General Services Fee and the firing of Waffle, but hasn't asked them how they would vote.

"I never ask anybody how they want to vote because that creates the problem," Knight said.

If Knight, Minshall and Gottwald meet to discuss city business or policy, they create a quorum of the city council under Oregon law. If they make a decision together outside a city council meeting, that's also a violation of the public meeting law.

Knight said no such face-to-face meeting has occurred, but he told the News-Times Friday that Waffle wasn't taking outside direction from him and his allies on city council, so he wants to terminate him.

"He's not doing his job, he's getting paid $100,000 a year," Knight said of Waffle. "He should be trying to figure out what the new council wants to do."

The problem for Knight is that what the "new council," as defined by his majority bloc, wants now differs from how the council has voted in public.

In an e-mail response to Knight's questions about what plans Waffle had to eliminate the General Services Fee, Waffle outlined the public direction the city council has given him on the matter.

"I don't have a plan to remove the general services fee as the City Council has not directed me to develop one," Waffle said. "In the past I have provided an outline of options if the General Services Fee were eliminated."

Waffle asked Knight to offer a proposal or direction at the city council meeting to develop a plan.

"I suggest you review those options that you might provide some direction as to what services the city should reduce if the fee is eliminated. The more specific guidance you offer, the most responsive I can be. This needs to be a publicly debated and discussed process by the entire City Council."

That outline of options was distributed in February and May. Knight said he didn't consider the proposals serious because they include reductions to city police and fire services.

The police department, with the equivalent of 13 employees, is the city's largest department.

Knight's political opponents, including Brad Coffey, a former city councilor who lost his bid for reelection to Minshall and Gottwald in a four-way race in November, on Friday sent an e-mail drumming up support for Waffle.

In it, Coffey criticized what he sees as a back-door effort on the part of Knight to get his way.

"Neal claims that simply because he was elected that he gets what he wants without going through the proper process," Coffey wrote. "There is a reason that the public process takes time and so many prescribed steps. The reason is to prevent the kind of thing that Neal seems determined to do."

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