Whittier interim city manager replaced amidst controversy in the city council
By Ken Smith
Robert Prunella had been working as the interim city manager for Whittier for the past two years, but last Friday, March 1, he was unceremoniously let go when the city council voted to hire a new manager as Prunella looked on.
Prunella said he was uncertain of his status with the city following the special meeting of the council, which was divided on whether to keep him on during the transition or let him go.
“Another city councilor motioned for a vote that I be hired to help the new manager transition in,” Prunella said, “and I said believed it was a good plan. I said I’m not politicking for the job. But that motion went down. But nowhere was the word terminated used. I left the meeting feeling I was terminated, but they didn’t use the word. I went to work Monday morning, and the mayor came in and wasn’t very happy to see me and kicked me out of the office.”
Whittier Vice Mayor Daniel Blair was unable to attend the special meeting when the council voted to hire the new city manager, Thomas Bolen. Blair was out of town on work. He said he wanted to attend via teleconference, but was told that unless it was included on the agenda he would not be allowed to participate in the meeting. There were two motions: one to vote for the new city manager, which passed 4-2, and the second motion to keep Prunella for a 30-day transition period, which did not pass after a vote of 3-3.
Blair said he was in favor of retaining Prunella for the 30-day period, but because he could not vote, the motion did not pass.
“A failed voice means that Bob was fired,” Blair said. “If I was able to appear, then Bob would have been able to be kept on. I always thought you have to have a vote to terminate. Basically, the mayor ran Bob out of the office. It’s my interpretation that the mayor didn’t have the authority to do that. I don’t think that was the correct way to handle things. I don’t understand why it was essential that the mayor acted the way he did. I’m not a lawyer, but what we’re trying to do here is not that complicated. So I’m not that happy with it.”
Blair said he requested a copy of the recording of the meeting for himself and one to be sent to the city lawyer. Meanwhile, another special city council meeting will be held Thursday, March 7, to offer the new city manager a contract.
“I’m not in favor of ignoring Bob’s contract,” Blair said. “I think that’s bad news. These types of actions are what get us in trouble.”
Prunella had a brief encounter with Mayor Lester Lunceford on Monday, March 4. Prunella said the mayor walked in and asked him why he was in the office. “‘You don’t work here anymore’, that was basically what he said,” Prunella recalled. “And I said I was making a new list for the new manager and felt I had an obligation. So I made the list and left. But I don’t think this is the last chapter.”
Prunella said he had met with Lunceford in another meeting a week prior to the special city council meeting. After talking with the mayor, Prunella said he was left with the assumption that he was going to be terminated, but he said he hadn’t talked any further with Lunceford until Friday’s city council meeting.
The new city manager officially began working Tuesday, March 5. Bolen moved from Kotzebue to Whittier. No further information could be acquired about him. This reporter briefly spoke to mayor Lunceford in the morning on Tuesday, March 5. He said he was unavailable to talk at the time because he was in a meeting with the new city manager but would call back. After no call was received by late afternoon, this reporter made a second phone call to talk to the mayor but again was told he was unavailable, nor would the new city manager be able to receive a phone call at the time.
Prunella didn’t want to provide too much detail about his termination because he said he was considering taking legal action against the city for the lack of proper notice before he was terminated. He said he was meeting with a lawyer to discuss what – if any – legal action he should take.
Prunella said he understood his job was temporary, and a year ago he recommended that the city begin a search for a permanent manager. He said they finally advertised the job this past January. A month ago things seemed to be going fairly well, Prunella said, but then three weeks ago his relationship with the mayor changed. He wouldn’t elaborate.
Prunella said he’s proud of some of his accomplishments in Whittier. He cited the completion of phase 1 of Shotgun Cove Road, a development still under construction for residential housing along and near the shoreline of Prince William Sound. There was also a new boardwalk completed on the harbor, new slips built and sheet pile built to prevent harbor erosion.
“We got a snow blower from the state that really saved us last year,” he said. “We got some money to fix the roof on the public works building, but once they put on the new roof they’re going to run into all kinds of stuff that they’ll need more money from the state for.”
As for his future, Prunella said he would be leaving Whittier in about a week and return to his home in Wrangell, where he’s contemplating finally retiring after many years of public service.
“I’m 76 years old and I don’t need this,” he said. “Work keeps me young, but I don’t enjoy the grief and turmoil.”