THE AX MAN COMETH
Kamala Stillwell opened her Sunday paper early in July to disquieting news. The Maricopa County Library District, she learned for the first time, was advertising for a new director. The job offering came as more than a slight shock to Stillwell. She has, after all, held the director's post for the past six years.
The only person to head the district since its creation in 1987, Stillwell has built, from scratch, a 12-branch system supported by an annual budget of $10 million and more than 120 employees. Her accomplishments have garnered widespread praise for the library district's financial and administrative operations.
The recent classified advertisement, however, made at least one thing crystal clear to Stillwell: She is locked in a fight-to-the-death battle to keep her job.
Her adversary is Maricopa County Manager Roy Pederson, who, Stillwell says, has been trying to run her off the job since he took over the county's top administrative post in 1990. To date, she says, neither Pederson nor anyone from his office has explained why her job is on the line.
Stillwell called Pederson's office after she saw the advertisement seeking applicants for the job she already held, but, she says, the county manager would not talk to her. Now, Stillwell says, she feels "whipped and terrorized" by Pederson's treatment. She has retained an attorney to fight her apparently imminent termination.
She is hardly alone.
If ultimately forced from her job, Stillwell will join a long list of top county administrators who have been fired, demoted or transferred since Pederson took over the helm of county government.
Since his arrival, Pederson, a former Scottsdale city manager, has bulldozed his way through the county hierarchy, replacing most of the assistant county managers, numerous department heads, and many of their assistants.
Although a firm count is hard to come by, at least a dozen top-level administrators have been replaced, including the assistant county managers that oversaw health services, public works and financial services. Department heads overseeing purchasing, finance, highways, parks and recreation and multiple branches of the health services have also been replaced.
Pederson, who acknowledges that turnover has been high in the county's top ranks, says housecleaning was long overdue.
"The fact of the matter is this county was in serious difficulty in terms of the quality of much of its management, including its top management, and the [Board of Supervisors] wanted that corrected," he says.
Some critics, county insiders and former supervisors, however, believe that Pederson's agenda has far more to do with politics and self-preservation than public policy.
"I think what you see taking place now is that he's putting people in positions who have loyalty to him," says Tom Freestone, former chairman of the Board of Supervisors, who provided the swing vote that installed Pederson in the county manager's post. "Roy's trying to shore up his administration for the duration."
That "duration," insiders say, may last only until early next year, when the political betting is that county board chairman Jim Bruner will step down and run for Congress. Bruner has not formally announced his plans, but several insiders believe the congressional bid will happen.
It was Bruner who sponsored Pederson's candidacy for the county post and has remained his strongest supporter in county government.
If Bruner does step down, insiders suggest, Pederson could find his support on the board so diminished that he will be out of a job himself. (Bruner did not return telephone calls from New Times.)
"If he gets a lot of loyal people in, and they have a tight grip on the county, he stands a better chance after he loses his patron saint," says one longtime county watcher. "He's digging his trenches and filling them with his people."
Pederson dismisses such claims briskly. "That's an interesting theory, but it's pure baloney," he says.
Whatever their merit, the conspiracy theories are swirling. Pederson continues to draw ire from many quarters, from those inside county government as well as those who have been pushed out. By cutting such a wide swath through the county ranks, critics say, Pederson has wiped out good administrators along with the bad, exposed the county to serious legal challenges by former employees and wiped out much of the county's institutional memory.
"Pederson manages in an autocratic style. He is not comfortable with any other style of management," says Robbie Ritoch, who quit last year after 20 years in county information services when, she said, Pederson wouldn't give her anything to do. "He is going around getting rid of the people he can't manage or control and replacing them with people he can manage and control."
The stories of two longtime managers--library director Stillwell and former assistant county manager Wayne Collins--provide the most contentious examples of Pederson's housecleaning style, which one former county employee likens to a "Stalinist purge."
@body:More than two years after he became one of the first casualties of the Roy Pederson administration, former county engineer and assistant county manager Wayne Collins still is slow to discuss his abrupt termination publicly.
"I don't need media exposure," Collins says. "We have a court process."
Collins is in that process now, suing the county and Pederson personally for his termination. In his suit, Collins contends Pederson fired him not for poor performance, but because Collins objected when he saw county policy being subverted by political considerations.
To Collins, process is like a religion, and his pedigree as an apolitical policy wonk is difficult to challenge. During more than 26 years as a Navy engineer, he oversaw construction and management of Navy facilities around the world, often holding responsibility for Navy and Marine bases that could easily qualify as cities in their own right.
Still trim with close-cropped hair, Collins is a lifelong chain-of-command functionary who has won most of the awards that matter in the relatively unnoticed world of civil engineering, having held high posts in state and national engineering associations that most people have never heard of.
After a nationwide search for a new assistant county engineer, Collins was hired for that job in 1982, following his retirement from the military. In 1989, he moved up and assumed three jobs--county engineer, assistant county manager and director of public works. In that three-headed post, he was responsible for all the county's highway work, landfill operations, buildings and grounds, equipment services and parks.
Although slow to brag, Collins points out that he successfully set up two landfills in Maricopa County without sparking a single lawsuit, a rarity in modern government.
"You have to be technically and ethically proper to do that job," Collins says of the county engineer's post. When he saw things that did not meet his ethical standards, Collins says, he objected, but always by memo and never by stepping outside the chain of command.
Still, that tendency to question, Collins claims, regularly put him at cross-purposes with former board chairman Freestone and, ultimately, Pederson.
In his lawsuit against the county, Collins says he opposed a number of Freestone-backed projects that were, in the engineer's view, poor public policy. Most of the projects, Collins and others note, were in Freestone's district. Freestone was exploring the possibility of a congressional bid from the area in 1992 and seemed to be winning a lot of governmental favors for possible East Valley backers.
When the town of Queen Creek was incorporated in 1989, for example, Collins says he was instructed by Freestone's office to draft a legal description for the new town that would exclude existing roads from city jurisdiction. That curious arrangement meant the county would be paying for upkeep of some of the town's roads, even after incorporation.
"I was directed to do something illegal, in my opinion," Collins says. "Freestone was helping out his buddies in Queen Creek. This was so flagrant, so bad. Just bad public policy."
Greg Bielli, a member of the county's highway advisory board, says the county is still trying to resolve the Queen Creek situation, which was not explained to the advisory board until the incorporation was a done deal.
"Even today we deal with some of those roads," Bielli says. "It's not appropriate, and it's not good public policy."
Similarly, Collins says, he objected when the county kicked in about $1.5 million in 1990 to improve stretches of Alma School Road within the boundaries of Chandler, breaching a county policy of not paying for roadwork inside a city.
Freestone also was a key player in the selection of a new location for the West Mesa Justice Court when it moved in 1989. The court needed only about 5,500 square feet of office space, but the county ended up leasing 10,000 square feet in a building partly owned by Freestone supporter Joe Woods, father of state attorney general Grant Woods.
The county will ultimately pay about $100,000 for unused office space before the lease expires later this year.
Collins' objection to these and other transactions, he and others say, made for bad blood between Freestone and the county engineer.
"Freestone was just after [Collins]; there was no getting around it," former supervisor George Campbell says. "He was very much against Collins."
Freestone disputes Collins' allegations, contending that all the projects he pushed were based on sound public policy and had ultimate approval from the full board.
"He may want to believe [the claims of political favoritism] in his own mind, but wait and see how the lawsuit turns out," Freestone says.
In the end, Collins argues, he was fired by Pederson at Freestone's insistence. Although Pederson was not in the manager's post during some of the incidents that produced Collins-Freestone clashes, Collins says that when Pederson did arrive, he was quick to side with the board chairman, even if his proposals ran counter to staff recommendations.
On May 30, 1991, Collins says, Pederson told Collins he should look for another job, and that there would be no position for him in the county. A few days later, Collins says, Pederson told him he would be dismissed in 30 days if he did not resign.
One week later, on June 10, Pederson handed Collins a letter firing him.
Freestone denies he had anything to do with Collins' dismissal, saying the call was Pederson's alone. Pederson says the courts can decide if he was right.
One of the issues in Collins' suit, according to his attorney, David Kennedy, is whether Pederson even had the authority to dismiss Collins from his county engineer post, because that job by statute reports directly to the Board of Supervisors.
Collins is not the only former county official challenging the legality of his dismissal.
Joseph Warnas, former director of the county's Department of Materials Management, has filed a claim with the county contesting his dismissal earlier this year.
Warnas, a 22-year county employee, was handed a letter March 18 giving him the choice of quitting or being fired the next day, according to the claim he has filed with the county. The notice gave no reason for his firing, and Warnas was not even allowed to return to his office, the claim states.
Saying his firing was without justification, Warnas is seeking his job back. Neither Warnas nor his attorney would comment on the case.
Now, Stillwell, too, has filed a claim with the county in an attempt to block Pederson's efforts to replace her. Stillwell and her attorney, Stan Lubin, say that her case, like Collins', focuses on whether Stillwell can be fired by anyone but the Board of Supervisors. As library director, Stillwell is technically head of an independent district that is not part of the county government, and therefore may not be within Pederson's jurisdiction.
Pederson and the county say that Stillwell is not being fired. Citing a 1926 statute that specifies four-year terms for county librarians, Pederson says Stillwell's term has expired and a search has begun to see if a more qualified director can be found.
Stillwell, Pederson says, is more than welcome to apply for the job again. "We have proceeded in conjunction with legal advice and, as far as I know, everything is proper," he says.
So far, Collins, Warnas and Stillwell are the ones most vigorously fighting the way they have been treated since Pederson arrived, but they are far from being alone in their disenchantment with Pederson's rough handling of some personnel matters.
Pederson, current and former county employees note, likes to preach a leadership philosophy of "Total Quality Management," a management mantra of the 1990s that embraces the notion of treating employees and co-workers with friendliness and respect.
"You have to treat people decently," is an oft-repeated Pederson quote, and it is often repeated derisively.
In his handling of Collins, Stillwell, Warnas and others, critics say, Pederson has done anything but act decently.
"There's very definitely a pattern of not dealing with people in a fair and humane manner," says one former longtime employee who was nearing retirement and quit after watching several of her friends and longtime colleagues dismissed with little warning or explanation. Adolfo Echeveste, who was let go as head of the health department earlier this year, characterizes Pederson's management style as "obfuscated and scapegoating and confused, a smoke-and-mirrors kind of approach."
After running the health department for ten years--and being credited by many with saving it from financial catastrophe when he took over--Echeveste says he was willing to accept the prospect that a new county manager would want to name his own director.
But rather than being told it was time for a changing of the guard, Echeveste says, he was "maligned and so destroyed personally and professionally" by comments and criticism Pederson and others made behind his back, both before and after his termination.
"Whether you agree or disagree with the turnover," he says, "at least have some integrity in what you do."
Pederson says he sees no need to defend his handling of various personnel issues, except to the board.
"The board has delegated to me overall responsibility for that," he says. "Virtually every personnel action that occurs in the county--promotion, salary adjustment, disciplinary actions--has to be approved by the board before it is final."
@body:Pederson's selection as county manager in 1990 smacked of a political fix from the outset, according to many who were involved in the process. When former county manager Bob Mauney was pressured into quitting, the then-Board of Supervisors opened a nationwide search for a replacement.
At the time, Pederson had been city manager of Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a little more than a year. He had left Scottsdale after a new council decided he was not its kind of guy.
During his eight years in Scottsdale, says former city councilmember Susan Bitter Smith, Pederson had rearranged the city staff to "consolidate his power."
"He came up with an unusual staffing pattern, like multiple managers in different departments and some unique chains of command," says Smith, who acknowledges being part of the council faction that wanted Pederson gone.
Up in Colorado, Pederson apparently was having problems with that city's mayor, Bob Isaac. Isaac, in fact, would later be quoted as saying that Pederson "did nothing to help this city" and described Pederson as an "abusive bully."
As the nationwide search for a new county manager approached the stage when finalists would be interviewed, Pederson--who had not even applied for the job--suddenly showed up in the hunt, under the sponsorship of supervisor Jim Bruner. Bruner had been a Scottsdale city councilmember and Pederson supporter before moving to the county board.
Suddenly, county insiders say, the much-touted, open, nationwide search became a sham. Bruner lined up two more votes on the board, one of them Freestone's. Pederson was in.
Even before the new county manager had officially taken office, Stillwell says, she knew she and the library district were facing new problems.
The district was on the verge of opening a state-of-the-art, $6 million library on 32nd Street north of Bell Road to serve the northeast part of the county. While Stillwell was on vacation, she says, Pederson started negotiations to turn the building over to the City of Phoenix library system and give it $1 million a year of library district funds to operate it.
Even before Pederson's appointment, Stillwell had been caught in never-ending turf battles with the librarians of several Valley cities--including Phoenix library head Ralph Edwards--over the district's finances.
When it was created, the district was given taxing authority. City librarians wanted the county district to funnel some of the money to their operations, but Stillwell refused. She believed it was illegal for the county district to pass along tax money to city facilities, unless the cities involved gave up control of their libraries and folded them into the county system.
The fighting has continued since, despite legal opinions from both the county attorney and state Attorney General's Office backing Stillwell's interpretation of the law.
"The city librarians are not happy," says Dottie Smidt, a member of the county district's advisory council. "They want the dollars."
When Pederson, a former manager of two cities, arrived, he weighed in immediately on the side of the cities seeking money, Stillwell and others say.
"He was severely criticizing me and putting a lot of pressure on me," Stillwell says.
Stillwell contends Edwards and other city librarians have, along with Pederson, engaged in a "vendetta," hoping to remove her from office so the cities can tap the county district's budget.
"It's been a rather cowardly effort to undermine me," she says. Edwards bluntly dismisses Stillwell's assertions. Although he says he hasn't talked much with Pederson about the situation, Edwards acknowledges he would like to see Stillwell go.
"I don't think it's any secret. Anybody who knows anything about library service in this county knows I'd like to see a different person in that job," Edwards says. "We could get somebody who is cooperative and supportive rather than the situation we have had."
Stillwell's administration, he says, has not done enough to cooperate with city libraries, either through revenue-sharing or by providing other services. He accuses Stillwell of "empire building. She wants to take over all the libraries in the county."
But Stillwell's supporters--and there are many--say she has built the groundwork for a first-class library system. They contend she is being pecked to death by the politics that surrounded the district's creation.
The $6 million northeast library, they note, was built and paid for out of operating funds without requiring a bond issue or any debt, and was cheap at the price. The district runs 11 satellite branches and is the only local library system that sends bookmobiles to various parts of the county.
"It befuddles me why they are trying to get rid of her," says John Cordova, head of the library's Citizen's Advisory Committee and president of South Mountain Community College. "We have a highly competent professional. She's been very open from the outset. My observation of how she works with her staff, it's just superb."
Even Pederson has praised Stillwell's accomplishments in letters. But he has also been trying to fire her since day one, she says. In fact, one allegation in Wayne Collins' lawsuit against the county is that he was fired because he refused to dismiss Stillwell two years ago.
Pederson denies that he attempted to have Stillwell canned earlier, but both Collins and county insiders say it happened.
"The sore point between Pederson and Collins was this very issue," says one official who observed Collins' firing. Ironically, if Stillwell is finally pushed out, it may be one of Pederson's last major personnel acts, should Bruner step down and Pederson lose the support of a majority of the Board of Supervisors.
But critics say that even if he leaves soon, Pederson will have succeeded in running off a wealth of experience and institutional memory during his tenure.
"I think it's unfortunate," says former board member George Campbell. "I think maybe the board has allowed the county manager to have more authority than he should. There's a lot of inside politics that have been played.
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