El Mirage City Manager fired over tensions with public safety workers
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A divided El Mirage City Council fired seven-year City Manager Spencer Isom, who had sparred with public-safety workers in the city.
Councilman Ray Delgado told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that the termination stemmed from strained relations with police and fire.
The city’s fire union said Isom created a “toxic environment” for police and fire personnel.
Isom said it was about public safety demanding more money.
Isom’s two allies, Mayor Lana Mook and Councilman Jack Palladino, had placed Isom’s employment on Tuesday’s City Council meeting agenda. The two listed his achievements, from cultivating a relationship with Luke Air Force Base to improving downtown.
In the document, the pair note they are “disheartened” that the city’s public safety unions disparage Isom.
“And I can’t understand why any member of this Council would stand by and let it happen,” the document reads.
It goes on to say, “Council, if the majority of you sincerely want Dr. Isom gone, then this is your chance as he is not going to let anyone pressure him to resign.”
The council took them up on it, terminating Isom “without case,” which means no finding of wrong-doing. The city will pay Isom about $223,000 on his way out, according to the council document.
The council has not yet appointed an interim city manager. Delgado said the city would soon launch a search for a permanent replacement.
Firefighters celebrate the departure
Isom told The Arizona Republic on Thursday that he helped make El Mirage financially solvent while adding parks, new city buildings and safer roads around schools. But he noted continued friction with public safety unions.
“The political winds have shifted, and public safety is demanding more money at the taxpayer’s expense, and we were at odds on that point,” Isom said in a written statement.
“Unfortunately, they made it personal,” he went on to write. “This is the nature of the City Manager business, especially for a manager who remains focused on the citizens and the financial health of the organization.”
The El Mirage Fire Fighters Association issued a statement saying residents and business owners stand to be safer now that public safety might become more of a priority.
Isom made “personal attacks” against firefighters and “made public safety in our city less effective and created a toxic environment for every public safety worker,” the statement said.
Stephen Gilman, state representative for the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, summarized the agency’s frustrations on two fronts: resources and staffing.
Shortcomings on both, he said, were the direct result of Isom’s tenure.
“They just were so frustrated by that environment that was created by the city manager,” Gilman told The Arizona Republic on Wednesday.
Fights over fire stations
Voters in 2008 approved a $16 million bond issue to pay for, among other things, the design and construction of a $6.9 million fire station south of Peoria Avenue and El Mirage Road, according to The Arizona Republic and ballot materials.
The new facility was billed as a badly needed addition to the growing community that was home to a single fire station, off of North El Mirage and West Thunderbird Road. But officials — Isom among them — instead pursued construction of a new fire station adjacent to the older facility, which top brass said could no longer house staff and equipment to provide adequate service, according to a 2011 news release from the city.
The logic? Use limited resources to staff one station well rather than spread existing resources thin and suffer financially with a two-station plan.
The new station next door was completed, all operations were moved into it, and the roughly 10-square mile city remained a one-station community, even as the population hit 35,000 residents.
“They’re running one of the busiest engines in the Valley,” Gilman said.
Last year, the El Mirage Fire Department responded to more than 4,500 emergency calls, the firefighters union reported.
While the city’s crews handle most emergencies, the city has “cannibalized automatic aid systems” from surrounding crews at agencies that help respond to emergencies closest to them, Gilman said.
“This isn’t a new issue,” he said. “This has been an ongoing, long issue.”
All of that, Gilman said, bleeds into the second point of contention: high employee turnover.
Fifteen fire personnel have left in the past five years — 14 in three years. A 12-year captain, two engineers and a dozen firefighters are among those who have left, Gilman said.
The El Mirage Fire Department employs 24 people, including 19 firefighters, according to the city.
“I’ve never seen a department that has such a high turnover rate,” Gilman said. “That’s a huge loss. They just were so frustrated by that environment that was created by the city manager.”
A city spokeswoman could not immediately confirm those figures.
Isom said that fire department turnover “was not excessive.”
“When vacancies did occur in the El Mirage fire department, there were no problems filling those positions as candidates were plentiful,” he said.
Squabbles with police
Frustrations have also been reported by the El Mirage Police Employees Association.
In May, the vice president of that group alleged a violation of Open Meetings Law, citing a survey about police concerns that was not advertised to the public as part of a council meeting and glossed over without discussion. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to whether the allegation came across its desk.
In 2015, Isom was the center of controversy regarding allegations that the city was trying to cut costs by reducing medical benefits to officers who suffered injuries while on-duty.
That, coupled with low morale in general, were a significant cause for concern, said Jim Parks, executive director of the Arizona Conference of Police and Sheriffs, a law enforcement union that works with local organizations around the state.
Parks said Isom’s ousting only stood to help move the agency and community forward.
“I think it’s the right decision,” he said.