West Liberty Fires City Administrator

By Gregg Hennigan, Reporter

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By Richard Pratt

WEST LIBERTY, Iowa -- The West Liberty City Council fired longtime City Manager Chris Ward Thursday night.

Ward and his attorney say he is being made a scapegoat by the council over displeasure with the town’s recycling program.

“I’m just kind of shocked, taken aback, to be honest with you. I’m disappointed,” Ward said in a brief interview Friday before adding, “The sun rose this morning like it does every day."

The council vote was 4-1, with William Cline dissenting.

West Liberty is a town of 3,700 people about 15 miles east of Iowa City, in Muscatine County. Ward, 38, had been the city manager there since 2004.

Although issues with the city’s recycling program are at the root of Ward’s dismissal, Mayor Chad Thomas said the action ultimately stemmed from a loss of trust and confidence in Ward. Thomas does not have a vote on the council and would not say how he would have voted Thursday night if he did.

“I’m not going to bad mouth Chris," he said. "He did some great things as city manager. I don’t have a vote, but I certainly expressed to him, both privately… and publicly, my feelings about why we had reached the point that we had.”

Ward’s attorney, William Tharp, traced the issue back several years. In a statement sent to news organizations Thursday that he planned to read to the council, Tharp said the council failed in 2007 to approve the construction of a building for recycling, leaving the city with an open-air recycling center with no one checking to ensure trash and recyclable items were separated.

Since then, City Council members have repeatedly been made aware of problems with contamination, Tharp said.

This fall, with questions arising about contamination issues and what would and would not be accepted by the city’s recycling partner, the Muscatine County Solid Waste Agency, some members of the public and city council members expressed frustration about the recycling program. Some of that was directed at Ward, but Tharp said the city manager was only following the directions of the council.

Thomas, however, said elected officials and the public recently learned that the city stopped recycling material about three years ago but continued to put out recycling bins for people to use.

The council scheduled a performance review for Ward Thursday night. Iowa law allows for such a meeting to be closed to the public, but Ward requested it be open.

Tharp forwarded a handwritten letter the mayor left Ward on Wednesday saying a suspension instead of termination was a possibility if Ward agreed to have his review in closed session, stopped the “theatrics/staging” and would accept a plan of correction.

Thomas said Friday that having the meeting behind closed doors was not a condition for Ward to keep his job but rather advice that being able to discuss the matter in private "probably would have been more helpful to him."

Asked what his next steps are, Ward, who is married with two children, said Friday, “I don’t know except to maybe, like anybody else, try to get another job.”

Thomas said the City Council will discuss the city manager position at a meeting Tuesday and may hire a search firm to fill the job.

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