EDITOR’S NOTE: This updated story replaces one from earlier Saturday that had incomplete information about this council meeting. We apologize for the error.
By Jack Mayne
Assistant Des Moines City Manager Michael Matthias was selected by the City Council to be the next city manager, after a previously selected candidate mysteriously and without reason withdrew his application.
Withdrawal of previously approved candidate James Nichols of Douglas County, Nevada, left the Council to consider the second place contender, Matthias. After an executive session Thursday night (Aug. 11), the Council approved Matthias 6-1, with Councilmember Robbie Back opposed. Matthias’ job is contingent upon negotiating a satisfactory contract with the city and getting that contract approved by lawyers and the Council.
Time has been wasted
Mayor Pro-tem Victor Pennington moved to hire Matthias and Councilmember Luisa Bangs seconded the motion.
Pennington said he had been disappointed “at our time being wasted by someone,” referring to the withdrawal of Nichols.
Mayor Matt Pina had started the Council meeting with remarks elaborating on the earlier news release about the surprise withdrawal of Nichols who had been unanimously named by the Council on July 28, but he withdrew before there were any negotiations, and gave no “specific reason.”
Councilmember Back said Nichol’s withdrawal from the offered job “is his loss, the city is going in a good direction. Back said he was disappointed at the candidate research firm and the fact they has a weak group of candidates after a highly endorsement of Nichols.
Back noted current City Manager Tony Piasecki is retiring soon and said he thinks Matthias is a good candidate but said he “felt rushed” at the Council action so he was “not going to vote for this” and was the lone “no” vote.
“Michael (Matthias) has just done wonderful things with economic development,” said Councilmember Melissa Musser, adding “I have the confidence in Michael to move economic development forward … I think Michael is a lot different that the man he replaces and be that agent of change.”
Musser said that Matthias was the first person to recognize the was time to stop cutting the budget and to suggest seeing new forms of revenue to the city.
Councilmember Bangs said the process of getting a new city manager has been difficult but with support of the staff and the citizens “I don’t see any reason why Michael can’t succeed … with our guidance, our input and our concerns.”
“To wait, for me, made no sense,” Bangs said.
Councilmember Dave Kaplan said the Council had placed a lot of faith in Nichols but “he let us down before we even hand an opportunity to have a conversation about what a contract would look like and that doesn’t mean we haven’t a lot of faith in Michael Matthias …”
“While he was not our first choice, Michael is going to do a good job for the city … and with all of our support will be able to carry out the goals we have set out.”
Pennington noted that Matthias and other department heads “have been brought in from outside with fresh eyes to change the direction of the ship. Change from three people that we hired from the outside and so if you are looking for a city manager from the outside, Michael is new here in the world of longevity.”
Mayor Pina said change from the outside is something Matthias has done elsewhere and he “understands what is going on here in Des Moines.” Pina noted that change is necessary for the city to advance and be successful.
“It is a new day, it’s a new direction,” Pina concluded.
A ‘great conversation’
Pina said earlier in the Council session that Nichols did not get any further information after his selection on which to base his withdrawal, and had not seen what the city might have offered in a contract.
He had “a great conversation” on the phone with Nichols, said the mayor, but Nichols gave no reasons, “he just asked a whole slew of questions.”
“But in my opinion, it is my opinion,” Pina told the council, “it was pretty apparent that this candidate was having some anxieties about assuming the role, the top leadership position within the city, and that probably led to the withdrawal.”
A citizen asked why the name of the selected applicant was publically announced before employment negotiations took place and was told by the city attorney that was required under the state open public meetings act.
Mayor Pro-Tem Vic Pennington said he was disappointed at Nichol’s withdrawal from becoming city manager. “A lot of people devoted a lot of time” to get to Nichol’s selection.
“Right now, I don’t want to know a reason. He pulled out, he left, so be it, we have to move down the road,” Pennington said.
Nichols was unemployed when he sought the Des Moines job. Until January, Nichols had been Douglas County, Nev., manager. Then there was a “mutual separation agreement.”
“Neither Nichols nor the county issued notice that would have been required under his three-year contract,” reported The Record-Courier newspaper in Minden, Nev. “According to Deputy District Attorney Doug Ritchie, if commissioners were to terminate Nichols’ contact, they would have had to provide him with two months notice, during which he would continue to be paid and then he would receive six months severance.
“The heart of the issue is that Nichols would effectively leave the county,” Ritchie said of the agreement.
“The key phrase is ‘the best interest of the county,’” Commissioner Greg Lynn said in January. “That’s what we’re serving.”
An earlier story in the Record-Courier, Nichols said he “still question the value of my leadership in this organization relative to the board make-up that we have right now,” he told commissioners in January.
“During his Nov. 4 evaluation earlier in the year, Nichols said he felt he’d routinely not met expectations from the county commission as a whole.
“This has been the most challenging period of my entire career,” Nichols was quoted in the Nevada newspaper. “I may have met expectations of individual board members, but I haven’t met the five sets of divergent expectations on a day-to day-basis.”
Nichol’s last day as Douglas County, Nev., county manager was Jan. 29, 2016.