The Ann Arbor City Council voted to terminate City Administrator Howard Lazarus without cause on Tuesday night, effective Feb. 29.
The resolution to fire Lazarus, sponsored by Councilmembers Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, and Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, passed with a 7-4 vote. The resolution approves a separation and release agreement guaranteeing a severance of one year’s salary, amounting to $223,600, and an additional lump sum of $1,000. The agreement also states that neither Lazarus nor the city will disparage or make comments that reflect negatively upon the other party.
Lazarus opened the meeting with a statement reflecting on his almost four years serving as Ann Arbor’s city administrator. He thanked the council and community members for the opportunity to serve and spoke about what he believes to be the four pillars of public service: purpose, respect, health and joy.
“We’ve accomplished many significant efforts; in addition to preserving and protecting the tremendous quality of life that we have in Ann Arbor, much of what we do is unnoticed, and that is the nature of the job we’ve chosen,” Lazarus said. “We may also never know the extent to which we positively impact the lives of people in our community.”
During public comment, multiple Ann Arbor residents addressed the upcoming vote on Lazarus’s termination. Dan Michniewicz, a candidate for City Council to represent Ward 5, said the firing was motivated by politics rather than motivated by concern for the public good.
“City staff are making political decisions,” Michniewicz said. “I don’t think this most recent iteration of what is a political tiff between two factions is going to get our community anywhere closer to addressing the climate crisis or housing crisis at the scale necessary.”
When presenting the resolution to fire Lazarus, Eaton said the decision came from a long discussion that began when Lazarus applied for a job as a city manager in Gainesville, Florida. His application referenced conflict with councilmembers, offending some of his colleagues. Eaton offered no further explanation for the reason of the proposed termination.
“While the council is concluding his employment without cause under the contract, it’s mostly because we don’t wish to state those causes, and we don’t wish to engage in litigation over whether or not the cause existed,” Eaton said. “It’s really of mutual benefit to the city administrator and the city to conclude this through negotiation rather than acrimony.”
Lumm said the decision came from a need for a more positive and productive relationship between councilmembers and the city administrator.
“I don’t believe it’s appropriate to go into specific details about our city administrator or his performance,” Lumm said. “I know it is fair for anyone to ask why I would vote for this … I’ve served on council a long time and with quite a few city administrators, and I’ve seen the evidence that council-administrator relationships are important to the effective functioning of city government both internally and externally … I want to support and promote relationships that are healthy and what you would expect to see on a high performing team.”
During the comments in support of the resolution, some residents in attendance interrupted with yells of disapproval and accusations of corruption. One held up a sign that read, “Good luck with a replacement!”
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, who voted in favor of firing Lazarus, addressed the crowd’s concerns about transparency.
“There’s personnel matters that don’t allow us to speak to some certain issues publicly,” Hayner said. “I certainly am sympathetic with the public who feel perhaps cheated of their opportunity to opine on this matter … there’s not much I can do to increase transparency around this matter and for that I apologize.”
Mayor Christopher Taylor voted against the resolution and expressed his disapproval of the council’s decision in a statement to The Daily.
“This action will waste more than $275,000 of taxpayer money and, as the Council majority admits, is entirely without cause,” Taylor’s statement reads. “Mr. Lazarus has done nothing wrong. This is a political termination that is bad for Ann Arbor.”
Taylor wrote that Lazarus is well qualified for his position and more needed than ever as the city faces critical stages of developing a $400 million budget, negotiations regarding the Gelman plume and the administrative leave of the police chief, among other challenges. He accused the council of punishing Lazarus for his resistance to “backroom” demands.
“Mr. Lazarus worked every day for Ann Arbor with intelligence, grace, and honor, to provide basic services and deliver real and meaningful change in pedestrian safety, affordable housing, and climate action,” Taylor’s statement continues. “The Council majority’s campaign of backroom pressure has culminated tonight in a grave public error. Ann Arbor, its residents and its reputation, will suffer from this deeply unwise decision for years to come.”
Councilmembers Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, and Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, all of whom voted against the resolution, released an open letter addressing the decision. Their letter states that the majority made their decision out of dislike for Lazarus.
“Put simply, the City Council majority didn’t like Mr. Lazarus,” the letter reads. “They didn’t like that he pushed back when they pressured him to ignore city policy established through legislation passed in years prior. They didn’t like that he reminded them that their role is to set policy, not to micromanage and publicly berate public servants.”
Ackerman, Grand and Smith assert that the decision is unprofessional and fiscally irresponsible.
“Removing the City Administrator without cause, throwing away his skills when they are needed most, and using your money to pay him to leave is offensive to our most fundamental values,” the letter continues. “The Ann Arbor we represent believes in and expects transparency.”
During general public comment, a number of attendees expressed outrage at the council’s decision. Speakers were critical of the lack of cause for terminating Lazarus.
Sally Hart Peterson, executive policy adviser for economic development at the Office of the City Administrator and former City Councilmember representing Ward 2, urged the councilmembers to rethink their vote, calling their decision detrimental to the interests of the community.
“The decision to terminate our city administrator without cause undermines the long-term integrity and stability of the administrative role of the city,” Peterson said. “It undermines the morale of our city employees, it is fiscally irresponsible and it is an insult to all who rely on our administrator’s leadership, authority and keen decision-making to keep the city running on a day-to-day basis … (Lazarus) has a clear sense of right and wrong, a respect for authority, and understands the clear line and division between city council and city administrator.”
Reporter Angelina Little can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.