If Damascus City Manager Greg Baker is fired, it could put into motion a recently renegotiated severance package with a payout of approximately $300,000

Supporters of embattled Damascus City Manager Greg Baker sat through a three-hour city council meeting on Monday, May 20, wondering what if anything would be the outcome of an executive session that the mayor requested to discuss Baker's job performance.

Late last week, Mayor Steve Spinnett requested city councilors hold the executive session and also requested a police officer be present.

According to the meeting agenda, Monday's executive session was held to "consider dismissal or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member of individual agent who does not request an open hearing."

Given the extensive history between Spinnett and Baker, who hasn't even been in the job for a full year, Baker's backers wondered what the executive session was all about. Some feared the worst: that he'd be fired.

Executive sessions can only be held for certain topics and are closed to the public. The media can attend but can only report on the proceedings if a councilor or other public official talks about what happened on the record following the meeting.

The make-up of the city council has changed dramatically since last December when councilors renegotiated Baker's contract following a series of defamatory statements Spinnett made about Baker. The new contract has a far more generous severance package to compensate Baker for alleged non-monetary harm, including emotional distress and damage to professional reputation, that he suffered as a consequence of Spinnett’s statements.

To avoid a costly lawsuit, the council paid Baker $10,000 and approved the new contract that also served as a release agreement: By agreeing to the more generous contract and taking the $10,000 settlement, Baker agreed to not sue the city for Spinnett's statements and actions.

But the timing of Spinnett's request for an executive session on Baker's job performance is unusual since Baker's annual performance review wouldn't be until December.

Armed with photocopied images of Baker's professional headshot with the words "I support Greg Baker" printed on the bottom, about 25 residents sat through Monday's council meeting. When Dan Phegley, one of Baker's most vocal critic, spoke negatively about Baker during his allotted time for public comment, Baker's supporters covered their faces with the image as a form of silent protest.

Once the council meeting ended, those supporters and others who attended the meeting stood outside the council chambers while councilors held their executive session.

After nearly an hour of closed door talks, the council ended its session, and reconvened the public council meeting. "No decision has been reached, so this meeting is ... adjourned," Spinnett announced.

"Anticlimactic," is how one member of the audience described the outcome

In December when the council renegotiated Baker's contract, some called it a golden parachute because it provided Baker a year’s worth of salary and medical benefits if Damascus residents vote to disincorporate as a city in November.

Volunteers are in the midsts of collecting the signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot.

The release agreement and improved severance package stem from a dispute between the mayor and Baker that began just two months after Baker started as city manager in July of 2012.

City staff on Sept. 5 reported to Baker that the mayor’s wife, Cindy, had stopped by City Hall and appeared to have been using a cell phone to take photos or images of confidential code enforcement documents that contained a Damascus resident’s personal information. The documents were on a city employee’s desk.

Baker reported the allegation to the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated and found no evidence of criminal conduct or wrongdoing of such photos being taken on or deleted from Cindy Spinnett’s cell phone.

But defamatory statements that Spinnett made, repeatedly, following the investigation created a host of potential legal claims that Baker could have filed against the city including, but not limited to, those for retaliation, breach of contract, defamation and deprivation of a liberty interest without due process, according to the agreement.

This coupled with the possibility of Damascus disincorporating this November caused the council to rework Baker’s contract to provide what then-Council President Diana Helm described as a safety net of more job protections and benefits.

According to the renegotiated agreement, the changes recognize the fact that city council in December 2012 didn't want Baker to resign, he relocated from out of state to accept this position, “he has already experienced retaliation for faithfully carrying out his duties as City Manager, and he would suffer substantial financial and professional harm if abruptly terminated for political reasons and through no fault of his own.”

But that was then.

Now, three new city councilors are in office, and two of Baker's staunchest supporters are gone.

The renegotiated contract, in addition to protecting the city against a lawsuit from Baker, vastly improved his severance package, which was unusually stingy in the wake of outgoing city manager Jim Bennett’s one-year severance package.

Under Baker’s original contract, if he were fired without cause — or for any reason the council saw fit — Baker would receive two months’ salary for each year of employment, plus health insurance premiums for an equal number of months. Severance was capped at six months of salary. That is roughly $57,500, but Baker would have to have served as city manager for three years to get that.

Such generous severance packages are the norm for city managers because the job is the governmental equivalent of a chief executive officer. City managers also are considered at-will employees, meaning they can be fired for any reason. Given the nature of politics — and the fact that it is the city council that hires and fires its city manager — the position comes with some inherent risks that severance packages are designed to counteract.

The agreement also stated that Baker could get one year of severance pay and benefits if he resigns because of “substantial interference by the Mayor or any member of the City Council in City administration.”

And because the contract is valid through 2014, if Baker resigned for such reasons at this point, he could get nearly a one-and-a-half-year payout, plus a year of severance with health benefits.

Same goes if Baker is fired without cause.

Considering that Baker makes $115,000 a year, that would add up to about $300,000.

Baker, who is from Kansas City, Mo., began his duties as city manager less than a year ago.He said he took the job in part because he likes a challenge.

Damascus has struggled to agree on how the area should be developed since residents voted to incorporate as a city in 2004. As for politics, the council has been embroiled in fights over everything from alleged secret meetings to campaign sign placement and theft since Spinnett took office in 2011. Spinnett was re-elected to a second two-year term in November.

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