A review of the Scottsbluff city manager took an unexpected turn on Monday when the city manager’s wife stood up, accusing a city councilmember of unethical conduct and pursuing his own agenda.
The Scottsbluff City Council reviewed the performance of Scottsbluff City Manager Dustin Rief, a review that came after his first six months in the position. The review started with Scottsbluff Mayor Jeanne McKerrigan saying she had been a member of the council when Rief had been selected for the post. She praised his work in the transition process and the last six months.
“I appreciate everything you have done,” she said. “I think you’ve done well. You’ve been collaborating with outside agencies and entities and I appreciate that very much.”
She acknowledged that “there have been some struggles, that can be worked through. It’s just a two-way communication.”
The Nebraska Open Meetings Act allows for an executive session for evaluation of a job performance for portions that are necessary “to prevent needless injury to the reputation of a person.” The Nebraska Attorney General’s Office has said that applies to sections of a job performance that may be harmful to a person’s reputation. Historically, the reviews of former Scottsbluff City Managers Rick Kuckkahn and Nathan Johnson were held in open session. Rief told the council that he also wanted to have his review conducted in open session.
He referenced keeping his review in open session as something he’d never done before, to discuss “where he is at” and that “there’s been a lot of things that came to me by word of mouth, or whatever.” He referenced “accusations of not being transparent enough or not enough communication. I want to shift the way our organization works by being transparent.”
He discussed his role as city manager, which he said is to handle the operations of the organization, with the council’s role to set policy and guide the community’s direction.
According to the discussion, each of the council members had gone through a process where they went through a review, offered feedback and ranked Rief’s performance. Before a brief discussion on those surveys, Rief went through the 12 tenets of the International City/County Management Association’s Code of Conduct, which he said had included a stipulation in his contract to which he be upheld.
At different points as he discussed the tenets, Rief became emotional, choking up as he talked. At different times, he referenced previous jobs. As he started with the third tenet, which speaks about ethics, he told the council the largest reason he had left his last position, which had been as city administrator for the City of Orono in Minnesota, was because he “wanted to ensure my job and my livelihood was not at risk for doing something unethical.”
One of the subsections under the tenet says that members should not be “improperly influenced in the performance of their duties.” In discussing that, Rief said, “It is hard to come into a community, and if there are those things taking place, it is hard to stand up and say no.”
He spoke about tenets regarding making decisions based on serving the best interests of the community, which he said he saw as the community at large, not just Scottsbluff citizens, but including Gering and the area at large. In addressing different tenets, Rief spoke about improving data and other points to make decisions using analytics and improving information, as well as improving access to the public. He talked about continuing his own education for professional development, such as participating in leadership programs and encouraging other staff to develop as he went through each of the tenets.
Rief also went through a list of expectations that he had for staff, which he said he had reviewed the week before because he “felt like there needed to be a re-clarification of my expectations of staff.” Topping the list were being ethical, honest, transparent and responsive. It addressed collaboration, delegation, and not being afraid of asking for help. Rief also said that he has an open door policy, being willing to listen and assist in figuring out a solution to issues. The list also reminded people to “be a professional representative of the City” and that their attitudes were a reflection on themselves and those that they serve.
A section on the expectations also addressed “handling of elected officials.” Staff were encouraged to be polite, kindly assist officials and notify him of the contact. However, some of Rief’s statements implied he felt there were issues.
Among those areas, he cited collaboration as “definitely hard” in the Scottsbluff-Gering area, where there are divides among organizations and the city. He said he felt they were making inroads.
Issues regarding communication were discussed, with him acknowledging needed improvements in his own communication and staff being willing to also ask for help. However, he said, he has also made directives in some capacities since he has been in Scottsbluff, saying, “I also have a lot of staff that’s been here a long time and they’re set in their ways.” He said he attempts to figure out a resolution before making a directive, but “sometimes we have to make the shift. And that’s OK. I’m not here to be everybody’s friend.”
In prior comments, he talked about boundaries existing between council members and staff. His list included: “Elected officials are not there for general everyday conversations, some do not have the best interest of the city in mind.” He also said, “In-depth questions about operations and other issues outside of a council meeting is outside of their role, refer them to the city manager.”
Though he did not elaborate, Reif said, “I don’t want to say that’s the case here,” but that he has experienced such in the past. “It’s ugly. And, it is really sad to see a community go in a negative direction because of one council member...,” he said, referring to council members being selfish and putting their needs before the community.
After Rief made his comments, four of the five council members only had positive things to say about Rief. Councilwoman Angela Scanlan praised Rief for being reflective. Councilman Nathan Green said he was pleased with the selection by the council that hired him, while also noting that there were challenges as the council had difficulties maintaining a full board for many months. However, Councilman Jordan Colwell had apparently given Rief a “2” out of a possible “5” points on communication in his survey and Rief said he didn’t feel the ranking was fair.
In her comments, McKerrigan also made reference to communication issues, noting communications between council members and department heads, that “she hoped will dissipate and stop.” Specifics were not given for any indication about the context of those communications.
Colwell, who had been the first to speak and give comments, said he didn’t feel that there were issues that couldn’t be addressed. He said Rief had also cited issues with communication. However, he said, some council members need more information” and he said he would like to see a list of action items and goals that Rief intended to work on during his next six months, perhaps a reference to similar asks of previous councils to previous city manager candidates.
Colwell pointed to LB 357 as an area he would like to see Rief examine regarding funding for a new pool, an annexation plan and other areas. Rief said he had plans for a strategy session to be held in November.
After councilmembers spoke briefly, the wife of the city manager, Jacqueline Rief, stood up and spoke. As his wife, she said, “her life is affected because of the position that he has chosen to take on.” She said she had grown up in Nebraska and ethics and morals that were ingrained in her were to be truthful, be kind, be truthful, helpful to be your neighbors and “do the right thing.”
However, she said, she had not seen that from certain people in the community. She made accusations against Colwell, saying she wanted to “expose him.” She cited various wrongs she said he had committed, such as “being willing to violate state statues,” “constantly harassing staff” or “bullying staff” and “repeatedly bribe them to bolster protection of sharing information with them,” and other various things for his own agenda.
“One has to wonder what this council member and the other staff or staff members would also do to violate policy for their own personal betterment, and not that of the city.” She referred to apparent differences in opinion regarding the appointment of a new council member, a position recently filled by the appointment of Selina Lerma to the seat. Jacqueline Rief referred to Colwell wanting to appoint “a quote ‘white male’ unquote ... instead of wanting to appoint the person with the highest qualifications regardless of gender.” She accused him of defaming her husband and claimed that he should be concerned about other areas of the community, such as hungry children, adequate shelter and other community wide concerns.
“I hope as Jesus showed us how, you can see the wrong you committed with your personal ego getting in your way. And, instead, really take a moment to self-assess and correct your actions by doing better, being better as you move forward and remembering the real reason you sit in that seat of power and how you can better use it to truly help others and not just yourself.”
None of the council members made any comments or regarding Jacqueline Rief’s accusations, or asked any questions. The only reaction was Mayor Jeanne McKerrigan, who was seated next to Colwell, a sideways glance. However, Colwell only looked forward and did not say anything in response to the woman’s speech.
After the comments, Rief told the council that his contract called for a 5% raise after each biannual review. Colwell asked attorney Kent Hadenfelt if he recalled the language of the contract, to which Hadenfelt said he did not. Colwell and Green asked for action on a raise to be delayed until Hadenfelt had reviewed the contract. However, an action item for the council to approve a raise for Rief was also not on the agenda.