Scottsbluff City Manager Dustin Rief could be set to get a 10% increase in pay in his first year heading western Nebraska’s largest city. At least publicly, the Scottsbluff City Council appears to be presenting a united front despite at least some fireworks during the city manager review process.
The Scottsbluff City Council approved a 5% increase in pay for Rief during its Oct. 4 meeting, which gave little indication that the prior meeting discussing Rief’s review had ended with a fiery speech from the city manager’s wife.
Discussion during the Oct. 4 meeting centered primarily on Rief’s contract. City council members had asked attorney Kent Hadenfelt during its Sept. 20 meeting to review Rief’s contract, as the city manager indicated he had been due for a 5% increase.
Hadenfelt said the contract calls for a possible merit increase after a successful or satisfactory evaluation by the council and such increase would be made upon his first anniversary “unless it’s otherwise agreed to.”
Rief told the council he had understood he would be eligible for a 5% increase after six months and an additional 5% increase after one year. He said it would be consistent with the handling of other city staff, who receive merit increases after a probationary period. That policy is set out in the city’s personnel manual, he said.
“My intention was just be treated fairly in the same way as the rest of the staff, in the first six months.”
Councilman Jordan Colwell was the only one to vote against the 5% “merit” increase. Prior to that, the council had agreed unanimously that Rief had received a “satisfactory” review.
Rief’s anniversary date will be March 1. He was hired in December 2020 at a base salary of $150,000, as well as set compensation for use of his vehicle for city business, a cell phone allowance and 20 days vacation a year. A 5% increase would be a raise of $7,500.
The review process for Rief began sometime in August, with councilmembers providing performance evaluation forms. The performance evaluations had a deadline date of Aug. 30, with former councilman Terry Schaub, who resigned on Aug. 2, and newest councilwoman Selina Lerma, sworn in during the Sept. 7 meeting, not participating.
The Star-Herald made a request for the reviews submitted by Mayor Jeanne McKerrigan and councilmembers Jordan Colwell, Nathan Green and Angela Scanlan, following the Sept. 20 meeting.
At that meeting, the review of Scottsbluff city manager Dustin Rief touched off an emotional speech by his wife, Jacqueline in which she railed against Colwell. During her speech, she made allegations against Colwell, saying she wanted to “expose him,” and she cited him as “being willing to violate state statutes,” “constantly harassing staff” or “bullying staff” and accused him of bribing staff to “bolster them” sharing information with him, as well and other various things for his own “agenda.” She accused Colwell and city staff of violating policy “for their own personal betterment.”
However, none of the councilmembers commented on that discussion at the following Oct. 4 meeting. Colwell submitted a letter to the editor, which ran in Tuesday’s Oct. 12 Star-Herald. In the letter, Colwell cites the city manager review as “typical of a first evaluation until the unexpected turn at the end.”
In reviewing the written evaluations, there did not appear to be any issues that seemed out-of-ordinary for a city manager review, particularly a review of a city manager in his first year. Categories seemed in line with previous reviews, with council members asked to rank from “1” to “5” on points under headings such as individual characteristics, professional skills and status, relations with elected members of the governing body, policy execution, reporting, citizen relations, staffing, supervision, fiscal management and community.
The rankings echoed comments made during the Sept. 20 meeting.
Most of the councilmembers offered a variety of rankings and feedback, with the exception of Councilwoman Angela Scanlan. In giving her reviews, Scanlan gave Rief a “5” ranking across the board. In comments, she said she was “optimistic to see Dustin continue along the positive path he’s begun with the city.”
“Your abilities and attitude are not at all in question in my mind; issues are with items outside of yourself, such as our need for a senior center, a DSA budget fund, & increased safety for highway intersections north of town,” Scanlan said.
Discussion about supervision by Rief seemed to have caused the most discussion, and possibly the controversy that led to his wife’s impassioned speech. Among discussion from Rief at that Sept. 20 meeting, he said his role is to handle the operations of the organization, with the council’s role to set policy and guide the community direction. Rief said he had directed city staff to direct questions by councilmembers to him, encouraging them to be polite and kindly assist officials but to refer them to him. After four positions in city management, he said, “I think the biggest challenge that we have is sometimes we get that one council member, or two in some cases, that don’t always have the best interests in mind. They have an agenda. And I think it’s hard to weed through that.”
McKerrigan also made references that she hoped council members talking to city staff “would stop.” There were some references that council members speaking to city staff is a violation of state statute. However, the Star-Herald reached out to attorney Kent Hadenfelt who said nothing in statute prevents council members from speaking with staff. One statute, Nebraska Revised Statute 19-618, prevents city council members from giving orders to city staff, but allows “investigatory powers” or inquiry by the council. Council members asking staff for feedback about the city manager’s performance or issues would be allowed under statute.
A portion of the statute reads: “Except for the purpose of inquiry, the city council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the city manager, and neither the city council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any of the subordinates of the city manager, either publicly or privately.”
During the Sept. 20 meeting, discussion between Colwell and Rief occurred regarding a “2” ranking from Colwell on a “supervision” item.
The item, “Encourages heads of departments to make decisions within their jurisdictions with minimal city manager involvement, yet maintains general control of operations by providing the right amount of communication to the staff,” resulted in a ranking of 3 by McKerrigan, a 4 by Green and a 5 by Scanlan.
However, among McKerrigan, Green and Colwell, the majority of rankings were “3” to “5” on most topics.
Similarly to the Sept. 20 meeting, in the evaluations, McKerrigan outlines Rief’s strength in “his willingness to work cooperatively with neighboring communities and agencies” and “Ability to plan on a long-term basis for the success of the city related to finances and employee coverage.”
Communication, as cited in the council meeting, was noted as an area of improvement. McKerrigan said, “Suggest that you continue to work on communication with the staff and department heads.” This will be a continuous process as everyone gets to know each other.” She also encouraged communication with neighboring communities and agencies.
Colwell also noted in his review that community members had commented they had been impressed with Rief’s willingness to meet and visit about how the city and an organization could work together. He cited communication with employees and council as an area for improvement, some suggestions, including “show that you trust senior staff members and let them help you succeed.”
Colwell was more extensive in his comments, noting some areas that he felt that action items and goals needed to be addressed. Some past councils have asked for similar goals lists of the city manager, and Colwell noted some of those things, including reviewing LB 357 ballot language to bring forward for a future election, decisions on pool, landfill and senior center issues and even a review of the city’s strategic plan. Some of those items Rief had indicated at the Sept. 20 meeting that he was addressing, including hopes in November to have a strategic planning meeting with the council.
In his comments, Green made a statement that the city manager shouldn’t “sweat the elections” as a constructive suggestion to enhance performance and “As councils change in complexity and organization, be aware of their own abilities and limitations to working together and be able to separate those failures from city progress.”
Comments by Jacqueline Rief during the Sept. 20 meeting also referred to a divide in the interview process to fill the council vacancy, though all council members voted to approve McKerrigan’s appointment of Lerma after any discussion may have been had. No discussion about consideration of candidates was held in open session, and the interviews of council candidates weren’t done in an open session either. Instead, the council split among two meetings to interview candidates for the position.
In addition to the request for reviews, the Star-Herald did ask Rief if he would be willing to be interviewed on any potential issues. However, Rief did not respond to the request. Rief provided the evaluation forms to the Star-Herald on Oct. 5.
Copies of the performance evaluation are available on starherald.com.