For the second time in a decade, the City of Verona has decided to part ways with an administrator.
While the unanimous vote Monday, Feb. 11, was to “accept the voluntary resignation” of Jeff Mikorski, it clearly was anything but voluntary. Mikorski, who was not at the meeting, will be paid for the next six months and will be “Director of Administrative Services” until April 5, according to a severance agreement the council approved with his resignation.
That essentially means he will serve as a consultant, Mayor Luke Diaz told the Press Monday night, and will answer questions as needed to help smooth the transition to the next administrator.
He said Mikorski has been helpful in planning the transition so far. Mikorski signed the severance agreement Feb. 5, three weeks after the council met in closed session to discuss his performance.
A letter of reference that is part of the agreement states, “Mr. Mikorski always acted in the best interest of the city and performed his job with professionalism, respect and commitment.”
Those sentiments are echoed in the “mutual” press release also stipulated in the contract, as well as a list of his accomplishments.
No reason was provided on the record for his exit; however, his communication skills and style were a frequently cited concern among elected officials, department heads and others who worked with him, and it was cited in a performance evaluation last year. Six of eight members of the Common Council and the mayor are all new to their post since he was hired in July 2016.
Diaz said the council will hold a special meeting Feb. 18 to determine the process for hiring his successor. He said he expects the council to appoint an interim administrator soon, likely with a temporary promotion of a current staff member. He added he will recommend an open hiring beyond that, rather than simply treating the interim tag as an audition, as he said sometimes happens.
Public comments were limited after the vote, with Ald. Evan Touchett (Dist. 4) thanking the absent Mikorski for his service and wishing him well and Diaz stating that a press release would be available in the morning. Mikorski did not respond to a Monday night email seeking comment.
Mikorski, whose salary was $137,111 annually, had been the city administrator for 2 ½ years, nearly the same amount of time as Shawn Murphy before his similar unceremonious exit in 2009.
One major difference, however, was that Murphy had never been given a performance evaluation despite it being part of his contract, while Mikorski did have one for 2017, his first full calendar year on the job. That evaluation showed several deficiencies in Mikorski’s communication and one “below average” mark, for availability to public officials.
The Personnel committee at the time, led by then-council president Elizabeth Doyle, wrote that Mikorski could improve his outreach to staff on policies and processes and improve the general information he provides to alders on the long-term implications of financial decisions. The committee asked Mikorski to include “more relevant information” during council meetings and “more outreach with the public” and outside organizations.
Diaz said a standard evaluation procedure led to his ousting, beginning with a Personnel committee meeting Jan. 9. A 2018 evaluation was never completed; instead, the council met Jan. 14 to discuss his employment in closed session and again Feb. 11.
Diaz told the Press one of his top priorities for a new administrator is a person who is interested and capable of making continual improvements to the entire city administration and other departments. He said he wants someone who is “active, energetic and really good at getting things done.”
Mikorski was hired in July 2016 from a similar position in Morgantown, W. Va., after a four-month search that involved two rounds of finalists because the first group was deemed unsatisfactory.
He told the Press at the time he had begun looking for a new position when there was change in the “political winds” in Morgantown – including a lawsuit attempting to remove four members of the City Council.
At the time, Mayor Jon Hochkammer said the council was “impressed” by the way Mikorski – a Wisconsin native and UW-Milwaukee graduate – answered questions in his interview.
“I think Jeff’s going to be here for a long time,” Hochkammer said then.
Mikorski started the following month, diving into the final budget process of finance director Cindy Engelke’s 20-year tenure here. By the time Engelke left at the end of the year, the city had turned over several of its most high-profile and long-serving employees over a 16-month period, including its assessor (34 years), public works director (33 years) and city engineer (30 years). It also lost its two building inspectors and clerk (five years).
His predecessor, Bill Burns, had been here six years, and that remains the second-longest term of an administrator in the city’s history.
Amid that turnover and the changes on the council, Mikorski presided over several important events and initiatives. Those included the closure of the Epic tax-increment financing district, a protracted and contentious negotiation with the school district over access to the new high school, the hiring of an economic development manager and a human resources manager and increased use of technology throughout city administration.
Jobs on the line
The move comes as the city is working on performance improvement plans with at least two other department heads, and on the same night the city hired a new property tax assessment firm after expressing unhappiness with a costly mistake made by its previous assessor.
Diaz said it is not an intentional housecleaning, even though he acknowledged some observers might wonder.
“This isn’t like we went looking for stuff; stuff came and found us,” Diaz said, noting the “obvious” situations with the assessor and the fire department, in which the firefighters union called for Joe Giver’s resignation after an unrelated investigation of a personnel issue brought up multiple leadership concerns.
“It’s holding people accountable, holding people to high standards and making sure the people of Verona have the best services we can provide them,” he added.
Giver remains under a performance improvement plan, signed in October, and was the subject of what was at least a fifth closed-session discussion of his performance in three months by the Common Council on Monday. No action was taken.
His PIP includes items such as increasing collaboration, ensuring discipline is clear and consistent and improving the overall workplace culture, particularly with regards to harassment.
Also under a PIP (from November) is senior center director Mary Hanson. Her PIP refers to improving professionalism and confidentiality in personnel matters and delegating, rather than micromanaging.
Mikorski, who signed both of those PIPs, was not under such a plan himself.
“The overall direction of the city is good, and we’re smoothing out stuff that should have been done years ago,” Diaz said.