Under New Management

The Tucson City Council fires City Manager Mike Letcher

When the Tucson City Council voted 6-0 to can City Manager Mike Letcher last week, it was Councilwoman Karin Uhlich who made the motion to fire him.

"I know you to be a man of integrity, and I want to applaud you and thank you for your service to the city of Tucson," Uhlich said at the Wednesday, Sept. 7, City Council meeting. "Given your integrity, I know that you would not choose to serve with the council deeply divided or in any way contribute to division in our community. Recognizing your devotion and your commitment as such, I move that the council remove you from the office of city manager effective this Friday."

Moments later, it was over, ending a tumultuous two years for Letcher atop the city bureaucracy that began when the council ousted the previous manager, Mike Hein, in April 2009.

The vote to force Letcher out by Friday, Sept. 9, provided a much-shorter timeline than Letcher himself had proposed in a six-page resignation letter he'd sent out the previous morning as city workers were returning to work from the Labor Day holiday.

Letcher had offered to stay on through August 2012 to get the city through one more budget cycle and give the City Council time to conduct a national search for his replacement.

Uhlich, a Democrat who represents Ward 3, was one of Letcher's biggest supporters on the City Council. When his letter was first publicized last week, she had praise for the embattled manager, saying that she thought there was "some element of 'kill the messenger' going on."

Before the City Council meeting, Uhlich said that Letcher was "hired to bring more transparency and openness to city government. He was hired to identify messes and then work to clean them up. And sure enough, messes are being revealed. ... I think in many ways, he's being blamed for fulfilling the charge that he was directly given."

Earlier this week, Uhlich confirmed to the Weekly that she had discussed Letcher's resignation with him over the Labor Day weekend before he sent out his letter.

"Mike and I communicated pretty regularly, and we did stay in touch through the weekend," Uhlich said. "He was very aware of eroding confidence on the council ... I would assume that he had communicated with others as well."

Letcher had been under fire from Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik for months. The council's sole Republican, Kozachik had been frustrated with Letcher's proposals for solving the city's budget shortfalls, as well as Letcher's work on a downtown hotel that the City Council eventually killed.

More recently, Kozachik had sparred with Letcher over the management of the city's 911 system and a scandal involving the theft of parking-meter money and other accounting problems in the ParkWise department.

Much of Letcher's letter was a defense against charges that he had been mismanaging the city. In particular, he noted that Kozachik had been interfering with his efforts to reform the 911 system.

Letcher wrote that he "cannot change the current political and media climate in this community that focuses more on blame than resolution."

He added: "I know now that I can only go so far in changing the organizational climate of the city that has not seen consistent city management since Joel Valdez. I know that I will continue to find problems to fix that expose the city to public criticism."

While the resignation letter "was not so much a surprise," Uhlich said the decision to combine the resignation with a defense of his actions regarding ParkWise and 911 management "didn't serve Mike well. ... That tone contributed to a lot of eroding support."

Kozachik said that he was "not happy about it," but Letcher had to go.

"I'm glad that the rest of the council finally recognized that it was the right thing to do," Kozachik said. "And I won't mince words with you: I'm convinced, and nobody has said this to me, but I'm convinced that one of the reasons that they finally acted was that they became convinced that he was going to hurt their candidates in this upcoming election."

Democrat Paul Cunningham, who is facing Republican Jennifer Rawson in this year's Ward 2 council race, said Letcher's lengthy letter—which he described as a "full-on rant"—cost him his job.

"I believe the dynamics of Mike Letcher's fate completely changed when he sent that email," Cunningham said. "You never really want to fire somebody, and you never want somebody leaving on harsh terms. But that letter wasn't acceptable behavior for any city manager."

Cunningham said that over Labor Day weekend, he'd told Letcher that "he wasn't right for the job. He knew that if any motion was made to remove him, I'd vote to remove him. ... We'd run into so many issues all at once, and they kept coming, and there were more coming down the pike. I pretty much lost confidence in his ability to manage the city."

But Cunningham said he was not aware over Labor Day weekend that Letcher would be delivering a letter of resignation.

Councilwoman Regina Romero said that Letcher's resignation letter was the deciding factor in her vote to dismiss him.

"I can understand that people want to vent, but I thought that was highly inappropriate, and it didn't help him," Romero said. "Terminating is always a hard decision to make, but I don't think it would have been a good environment for the City Council or for Mike Letcher if he stayed on board."

Reached last week after his firing, Letcher declined to discuss city business, but said he was ready to move on.

"I'm retired now," said Letcher, who is eligible for six months of his $211,000 annual salary, plus benefits, as a result of his dismissal. "I feel good. I'm real happy to stay in Tucson. ... This is a great community, and I've got a lot of friends here."

Letcher, 60, said he would not seek any more jobs in city management after a 34-year-career, but might pursue teaching opportunities.

Deputy City Manager Richard Miranda, a former police chief, automatically becomes interim manager.

All of the council members interviewed by the Weekly said they'd like to conduct a national search for a new manager, but would wait until after the November election to make a final choice.

"I see no reason to limit our applicant pool," Kozachik said. "This is a wonderful community, and it's a great job."

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