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An IR View: Terminating city manager will be costly, but Helena can’t afford not to
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AN IR VIEW

An IR View: Terminating city manager will be costly, but Helena can’t afford not to

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While it won't be cheap for the city of Helena to part with its volatile city manager, the monetary and moral costs of keeping her around would be much higher.

On Monday, the Helena City Commission will consider giving City Manager Ana Cortez a lump sum of $163,887.51 and a clean letter of recommendation in exchange for her Feb. 6 resignation and her promise to waive any potential legal claims pertaining to her employment.

Cortez still has about 11 months left on her two-year employment contract, which provides for an annual salary of $150,000, so the city had to make the separation agreement attractive enough to prevent her from suing for breach of contract.

Despite the obscene amount of the payout, which is well over twice the median household income in Lewis and Clark County, it's time for the city to cut its losses and move on.

Cortez spent at least three weeks of her first 12 months in office on paid administrative leave as various complaints against her were investigated. In addition to her regular wages of nearly $2,900 per week, the city also had to pay yet-to-be-determined attorney fees during that time.

The city has not yet disclosed the circumstances that led to the city manager's current leave of absence, but she was not without fault the last time around. Although she was cleared of any legal or policy violations after she was put on administrative leave in June, the independent investigator handling the case found that her communication and management skills were severely lacking.

This is something many in Helena have learned the hard way.

Early in her tenure, Cortez tried to silence many of the city's department heads, who have traditionally been the community's primary contacts in their areas of expertise but were told not to discuss their work publicly.

Our city manager should be working to build healthy relationships with the community, which is not something we've seen from the current officeholder. As far as we can remember, Cortez is Helena's only city manager who has refused to answer basic questions or even meet with the Independent Record editorial board.

We aren't implying that the city has accomplished nothing over the last 12 months, but it is hard to judge whether the city manager played a role in any of the city's accomplishments since she refuses to talk about her work.

Cortez has said her goals for the city are irrelevant because she serves at the pleasure of the mayor and city commission. While it's good to have a healthy respect for the chain of command, $150,000 a year is a lot to pay for someone who supposedly brings no original ideas to the table.

Cortez's short time in office has been marred by her secrecy and hostility, which has tarnished the city's reputation both internally and externally. Diplomacy matters, and the people of Helena cannot trust or respect a city manager who does not respect them.

Hiring a competent city manager is perhaps the mayor and city commission's most important job, and they failed our community when they selected Cortez from a field of 116 applicants in 2018.

But two new city commissioners have taken office since then, and we hope they and the rest of the governing body will end Cortez's reign and do a better job of vetting her replacement.

Helena's future depends on it.

This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board. 

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As open-government advocates throughout the nation were preparing for this week’s celebration of access to public information, some members of Helena’s governing body were robbing the public and their peers of their constitutional right to observe and participate in a decision-making process that will reverberate for years to come.

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