City Commission

Ashland city manager Michael Graese during commission meeting Thursday. KEVIN GOLDY | THE DAILY INDEPENDENT

ASHLAND The Ashland City Commission voted Wednesday to extend City Manager Mike Graese’s contract by six months, in order to allow the newly elected commission next year to decide about the top-paid official’s status.

In what Mayor Stephen Gilmore characterized as a decision in which “everyone agreed 100%, did not have a dissenting comment about it at all,” at least two commissioners have said they would’ve preferred a longer contract.

Gilmore said the short extension, to give the next commission the option on Graese, was not a reflection on Graese’s performance in the role.

“When you have elected bodies that change, you know, sometimes they might want to look at a year’s contract for people. I’m not opposed to whatever. In Mr. Graese’s position, who has done an excellent job and is the hardest-working city manager I’ve ever seen, I basically prompted this to allow a new elected commission to decide,” Gilmore said.

Continued Gilmore: “I didn’t think it would be fair for us to give him one year, two years, three years, whatever the case may be. I’m not sure I would support another three years, I don’t care who it is. But, it felt very important to me the new commission should make that decision, not us.”

Graese, a retired military commander, oversees the day-to-day operations of the city’s departments. In 2017, Graese signed a three-year contract to serve as city manager, after the top pick in the applicant pool got cold feet at the last minute.

When contacted about the extension, Graese said, “I’m disappointed that the commission didn’t have the confidence in my performance over the last three years to offer me a long-term contract.”

In the past, city managers have worked for the city at-will — meaning without a contract — like most city employees. Following a trend seen in cities nationally, the position is now done by contract.

Commissioner Amanda Clark said she wanted to extend the contract by three years, but did not vote against the measure announced following an executive session Wednesday because she did not want it to be perceived as a vote against Graese’s performance.

“I want him here for another decade,” Clark said. “Most of the conversations we’ve had with each other in terms of the commission, most everybody was fine with six months.”

That means on Feb. 1, 2021, the newly elected commission — with Mayor-elect Matt Perkins as the only for-sure carryover from the present commission — will have a month to decide what do with the city manager. Clark said the position is supposed to be one of stability.

“In two years, you can have a complete turnover in the commission. Every four years, you have a new mayor. If you keep a city manager through that process, then your city is stable. Do I think six months reflects that? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. It does not reflect a commission who wants stability for the city,” Clark said.

Commissioner Marty Gute said he too wishes the contract could’ve been extended for a longer term. He said Graese’s expertise and ties to the area — his wife is originally from Ashland — made him a great pick to helm the day-to-day operations in the city government.

He said the decision to issue a six-month extension could be perceived as a mixed signal.

“It could be a mixed signal, it could keep people uneasy about the position. I can only speak for myself in that I’m ready to sign him for a long-term contract right now,” Gute said. “I have no quarrels with it. But I have to respect the mayor and the other commissioners’ opinions also.”

Gilmore said he approached each commissioner individually prior to Wednesday’s meeting. He said he proposed the six-month extension and “they felt it was a very reasonable thing to do, that it makes a lot of sense.”

“If each of them said, ‘yeah, let’s give him a year, two years’ or whatever, that would’ve been on the table for everybody to decide,” Gilmore said. “Steve Gilmore wasn’t the decision-maker on that part.”

However, Gute and interim commissioner Bernice Henry confirmed the option presented was either a six-month extension or no extension at all.

“He (Gilmore) had meetings with us and brought that to us,” Gute said. “That was really his feeling about it. So I think he knows how I feel. I’m a big fan of Mike Graese, but there was really no other option.”

Henry, while only on the commission for about a month, said she has been civically engaged for years and kept up with Graese’s career in the city. She said between her interactions with Graese coming into the commission and what she knew prior, she felt comfortable with the decision.

“He’s a very hard worker, he’s done a fantastic job. He’s a workaholic, if anything,” Henry said. “I felt comfortable making that decision.”

Perkins said he was “perfectly happy with the contract going until the end of the year.”

“I don’t want to lock another commission into a contract that may hinder them. They may want to give him a long contract or give him three years like we did initially. I think it’s fair to the new commission that we allow them to make that decision in the new year and new term,” the presumptive mayor said.

Last year, Perkins expressed support for a petition to change the city government from a city manager form to a strong mayor form, in which the mayor would essentially run the day-to-day operations. Initially filed with the signatures of his mother and brother, the measure did not receive enough signatures to make it onto the ballot last year.

Perkins said his support of the six-month extension had nothing to do with his stance on that issue and is not a move to push Graese out of his position. Perkins said anyone who thinks that is reading entirely too much into it.

“Oh no, not at all. No way. ... That’s not it at all,” Perkins said. “A lot of strong mayor forms of government have a city manager working under them. That’s in Huntington. Extending somebody’s contract is to the contrary.”

Perkins continued, “It’s giving the board an opportunity to set the term for the city manager. They’re going to be in charge — it’s not just me. That’s the thing about our form of government. I can’t do anything solely. I’m essentially a figure head for the board. That’s the government our citizens want and I plan on honoring that.”

All elected officials interviewed for this article were in agreement that the time length — about a month from the time the new commission sits — shouldn’t be an issue. Gilmore noted the new commission may decide to lengthen the process with another short-term extension, to watch Graese’s performance. All said that anyone running for commission and getting elected should already be civically engaged and have done their research prior to seeking office.

“While six months seems like a good idea to see if we can keep him, I think it’s too important of decision for this commission to put off for somebody,” Clark said. “I would hope if there is an all-new commission, if it’s a brand new set of faces that those people who have been campaigning, those people who would take those seats would be paying attention and be a part of the process before taking those seats. So they should know what kind of a job Mr. Graese is doing. They should be paying attention to what he does and how he does before they take those seats in January to have a decision by February.”

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