published Sunday, February 10th, 2013

East Ridge lives up to rep with Tim Gobble

East Ridge mayor Brent Lambert, right, and Deputy City Manager Eddie Phillips discuss city manager Tim Gobble Thursday during the East Ridge City Council meeting.
East Ridge mayor Brent Lambert, right, and Deputy City Manager Eddie Phillips discuss city manager Tim Gobble Thursday during the East Ridge City Council meeting.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

EAST RIDGE CITY MANAGERS

East Ridge has had eight full-time city managers* since the office was first instituted 20 years ago. The average length of stay has been 2.5 years.

1993-1997 -- Michael Nettles: Fired

Sept. 1997-Dec. 1997 -- James Monroe: Fired

Feb. 1998 - April 1999 -- Wayne Hamill: Fired

Nov. 2000 - Oct. 2001 -- James McAlister: Resigned

Jan. 2003 - May 2008 -- David Mays: Retired

May 2008 - June 2008 -- Curtis Adams: Resigned

Feb. 2009 - Aug. 2010 -- William Whitson: Resigned under threat of termination

April 2011 - Feb. 2013 -- Tim Gobble: Resigned under threat of termination

* Interim city managers have included former Mayor Fred Pruett, David Mays and Director of Public Safety Eddie Phillips

Source: East Ridge City Hall, newspaper archives

IF YOU GO

What: East Ridge City Council workshop to discuss qualifications for the city manager position. The meeting is open to the public.

When: 6 p.m. Monday

Where: City Hall, 1517 Tombras Ave.

East Ridge residents applauded when Tim Gobble was voted in as East Ridge's city manager. They waited in line to shake his hand after the council's unanimous vote in his favor that night in April 2011.

He had been a shoo-in, and hope was high that he would heal the gaping budget deficit the last manager had left behind.

Only eight months into the job, the council was so pleased with Gobble's work -- and so worried he would be lured to other government posts -- that they all agreed to give him a raise of $8,200 on top of his $116,800 salary. Even Jim Bethune, the councilman most wary of such a hasty raise, said, "My head votes no, but my heart votes yes."

Fast-forward to Thursday, when Gobble quietly resigned and slipped out of City Hall's back door for the last time, avoiding the large crowd expecting -- many hoping -- to see him fired in the council meeting.

This time, East Ridge residents applauded after the council voted to accept the resignation. Bethune helped lead the charge for his ouster.

The story is a familiar one in East Ridge. In the last 20 years, East Ridge councilmen have forced out at least five of its eight city managers -- many of whom arrived with glowing accolades.

The average manager's length of stay has been two and a half years, and the city has paid about $141,500 in severance to break ties with the last two.

"They come in and everyone loves them, but after a year or two years, people don't seem to like them as much or the decisions they've made," said Public Safety Director Eddie Phillips, who will serve his sixth stint as interim manager.

"The council loses confidence. Some of it is just politics. It's the changing of council and the political wheel."

IN AND OUT OF FAVOR

City managers hoping to put down roots in any town face tough odds. By nature, it is a tenuous position. Their bosses -- city councilmen and commissioners -- may change every two to four years. As power structures shift, managers fall in and out of favor.

"The city manager position is one that implements the policy decisions of the current city council," said Barry Baker, former director of the Tennessee City Management Association and previous city manager of Loudon, Tenn.

"Many times a new council assumes that the manager who was there has to be changed, because they want to do things differently and the manager is easier to fire," he said. "It's like baseball. ... You don't change the whole team."

Despite the inherent instability, several local city managers have maintained their posts through several election cycles.

Collegedale's manager, Ted Rogers, has led the city's staff for seven years, and Signal Mountain Town Manager Honna Rogers has held her position for about five. Soddy-Daisy's Hardie Stulce has been at the city's helm for four years, but he also held the title in the 1990s.

Cleveland City Manager Janice Casteel has kept her job for about six years -- as had former Red Bank City Manager Chris Dorsey before he was abruptly fired in 2011.

In the past 20 years, an East Ridge manager has yet to make it past five years in office. That record belongs to David Mays, who retired after half a decade with the title. Despite the brevity of Gobble's nearly two-year career with the city, he served the third-longest span of all the city's managers.

The last two East Ridge managers entered with high acclaim and left with a wake of controversy. When William Whitson arrived in 2009, even City Hall's most vocal critics praised his professionalism.

But after councilmen were blindsided by a six-figure budget deficit, Whitson chose to resign before he could be fired. He took a $62,500 severance package with him.

Gobble was selected to help pick up the pieces. Under his administration and with the help of tax increases, the city managed to achieve a budget surplus.

But a series of controversies eroded several council members' confidence in Gobble. He especially caught flak for his discipline of the city's court clerks after he said they mishandled a case in which his daughter was the victim; for argumentative interactions with residents on Facebook; and for hiring a 19-year-old church friend and giving him a $35,000 salary.

After the November 2012 elections when Marc Gravitt won a council seat, the criticisms grew more heated and the rumors of Gobble's imminent departure more credible.

Instead of being fired as was expected Thursday, Gobble left voluntarily with a severance deal worth about $79,000.

WANTING STABILITY

East Ridge residents are tired of the instability and tired of their tumultuous politics being a magnet for publicity, Phillips said.

"We're not the only city that has had this problem, but I think we've gotten this reputation," he said. "It would be good to change that and to have stable government. Businesses look for that when they try to relocate. It would be in all of our best interests."

On Thursday night after the vote to accept Gobble's resignation, East Ridge resident Dick Cook urged councilmen to rethink their process of picking a replacement.

"I think that perhaps we've made mistakes in hiring -- for a lack of a better word -- mercenaries," Cook said. "People who come in with their own agenda who are very well-paid. We're a very generous city."

Cook suggested the council include residents in the committee to narrow down candidates. Resident Mimi Lowrey echoed Cook's wish, saying a committee of citizens would help the city move away from favoritism.

"We're striving so hard to get away from our reputation for the good old boy thing, and [the council] would do well to avoid anything that hints of that," Lowrey said.

The council will meet Monday for a workshop to discuss qualifications for a city manager. Some are concerned that a city charter amendment requiring a city manager to have a bachelor's degree in public administration is too restrictive.

But a charter change would need to be approved on the city's 2014 ballot. Meanwhile, the council could pick an interim manager who will serve for more than a year before the qualification is broadened.

Cook, who was a part of the charter study committee that came up with the requirement, said that while he believes the job mandates at least a bachelor's degree and administrative experience, the restriction needs to be broadened.

And the candidate should care about East Ridge, he says.

It should be someone "who knows our people, knows our problems, dreams our dreams, wants to make improvements."

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