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."

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David Pasztor