Contract outlines city manager’s departure

Scott Swanson

Ray Towry’s departure as city manager of Sweet Home came after “controversy and conflicts” that  “compromised city manager relationships,” according to the release contract agreed to by the City Council on Feb. 18. 

But Mayor Greg Mahler said Monday that wording “is not a narrative of what took place” in the council’s executive session Feb. 18, in which councilors decided to sign off on Towry’s departure.

“The agreement you see was written by attorneys,” Mahler said. “That’s why we had to have a lot of clarification in the meeting.” 

Oregon open meetings law provides for executive or “closed” sessions that enable council members and staff to discuss limited, specified topics, including the performance of an executive director. After discussing the issue behind closed doors, council members emerged and unanimously approved a “separation document” ending Towry’s nearly 5½ years with the city.  

Mahler said he couldn’t comment on what was discussed, but added that “there are always back stories, back conversations. There were negotiations behind the scenes and all the parties were involved.”

Towry, who arrived in Sweet Home in October 2016, following the resignation of Craig Martin, “consistently accomplished management transitions” ordained by the council, the document says, and it lists accomplishments he completed. They include:

— The renovation of the former U.S. Forest Service headquarters at 3225 Main St., which was converted into a new City Hall for Sweet Home. The city government moved into the building in 2019. 

— Securing $11- to $14 million in outside funding for upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant. 

— Obtaining $250,000 in grant funds for Sankey Park improvements.

— Closing out each fiscal year “with total expenditures under budget.” 

— Collaborating “effectively with the Chamber of Commerce and the Sweet Home Economic Development Group to build relationships with local healthcare providers and to secure expansion of medical services in the community.”

— “Successfully led initiatives to revamp the culture of city government.”

The agreement stated that the rebuilding of the city’s “culture” “resulted in anticipated and unavoidable opposition, conflicts and stressors as department heads left the city and excellent replacements were identified and recruited. 

“The parties recognize that controversy and conflicts precipitated by individuals infused tensions, which compromised city manager relationships even though the actions Towry took were requested and approved by the mayor and council,” the document stated, adding that Mahler and Towry agreed “that the public interest is best served by introducing a new city manager.”

It added that Mahler agreed that “that the circumstances which dictate this choice are beyond (Towry’s)  control.”

According to Mahler, Towry did a “phenomenal job” as city manager. 

“He knew how to recruit good, sound people for our community,” Mahler said. 

During Towry’s tenure, three of the four city departments without vacancies saw their directors depart: Mike Adams of Public Works, Finance Director Pat Gray and Librarian Rose Peda. They were replaced by Megan Dazey in the library, Finance Director Brandon Neish, and Public Works Director Greg Springman. What is now called the Community and Economic Development department did not have a director when Towry arrived, following the departure of Laura LaRoque prior to Martin’s resignation. Blair Larson is now community and economic development director.

Mahler said that when Towry arrived in Sweet Home, “staffing changes needed to be made, and when you make staffing changes, it’s never smooth.” 

However, he said, “I’m not aware of any unhappiness, per se. All I know is he resigned.” 

According to the release agreement, Towry leaves with 196.98 hours of vacation, holiday and administration leave, and will be paid four months base pay, plus one month for each of his five years of employment with the city for nine months or until Towry finds employment, the agreement stated.  Barring a new job, he will be paid a guaranteed $36,612 with the additional months salary totaling as much as $45,765 in addition to the vacation and leave hours.

Based on Towry’s most recent contract, approved by city councilors on Dec. 6, 2020, that payoff indicates that Towry’s departure was at the council’s behest. The approval followed a review in which all council members gave Towry a score of 4 or 5 out of 5 in every evaluation category. 

That approved contract provided that: “(S)hould manager resign at the request of city or is terminated at the will of the city and manager is willing and able to perform, the city shall pay severance pay equal to four (4) months base pay of city manager, plus one month for every year of employment with a maximum of 12 months, plus accrued vacation benefits. Severance pay will be paid in a lump sum or monthly payments equal to the number of months severance earned by the manager at the option of the city.”

Also, the city will pay Towry’s family’s health coverage up to $1,893.30 per month for up to nine months.

The agreement further stated that the city would give Towry a letter of “reference” outlining his accomplishments with the city. 

Mahler noted that the average tenure of a city manager is from five to eight years, and Towry’s time with the city falls within that scope. 

He said the search for a new city manager would begin “soon.” 

The council has unanimously approved a temporary employment contract with Christy Wurster to serve as interim city manager. Wurster served as Sweet Home’s city manager pro tem for seven months from May 2016 to Nov. 2016. She was also the city manager of Silverton from 2017 to 2020.

“Right now we’ve put Christy Wurster in place,” Mahler said. “She has a strong background. She’s going to take the lead.”