Eureka City Manager Dave Tyson listened on Friday while Mayor Frank Jager announced that the council voted 4-1 to endorse his decision to fire Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen. Tyson gave a wan smile and shook hands with a few supporters before heading for the door. The lone vote against his decision, Councilmember Linda Atkins, followed soon after, eyes forward, jaw set.
It was a defeat for Atkins, whose vocal protests of Nielsen's firing struck a chord with the former chief's many fans. She is trying to keep the battle over the firing alive, pushing a petition calling both for the reinstatement of Nielsen and the firing of Tyson.
Eureka residents lined up along both walls of the council chambers on Friday afternoon to have their say. The public comment period, scheduled to last one hour, stretched closer to two as speaker after speaker walked to the podium, many leaving only when the three-minute timer cut them off.
Most were there to denounce Tyson for firing Nielsen, whom many gave sole credit for turning around a dysfunctional police force and cleaning up Eureka's decrepit West Side. While some primarily praised Nielsen and expressed regret over his firing, many speakers directly attacked Tyson, accusing him of corruption and bullying. Some were upset that Tyson didn't give any reason for the firing, which to them implied shady dealings. Multiple speakers said that the timing of the special session -- Friday afternoon, before a three-day weekend -- was picked specifically to stifle public input.
Tyson's supporters included acquaintances, who praised his savvy management and upright nature, and city employees, who said that because of privacy issues, the public cannot know exactly what prompted the firing.
The crowd interrupted some speakers with whistles and catcalls, and by the end of the public comment session, the pro-Tyson and anti-Tyson groups competed to see who could clap loudest.
Tyson and the council listened to the speeches with blank, even bored expressions.
By the time the council returned from its half-hour closed session most of the crowd had gone. Only 20 or so relatives, government workers and reporters remained when the two decisions reached behind closed doors were read: the 4-1 vote supporting Tyson's decision, and the unanimous vote to install Eureka Police Department Capt. Murl Harpham as interim chief. The results were no great surprise to anyone in attendance -- in the days before, the other city council members had publically closed ranks around Tyson.
Prior to the special session, Councilmember Lance Madsen said that he wasn't likely to vote against Tyson, even if he heard something new during the public comment period, which he also didn't think was likely. Madsen said he had no idea why the firing rankled Atkins so much, but that her reaction was over the top and could make it more difficult to work together in the future. "None of us are ostracizing her. I'm getting tired of being called names and being accused of being part of some secret group," Madsen said.
He in turn questioned her connections with Nielsen, speculating that her motivation might be more than a little political.
Councilmember Marion Brady wondered the same thing. "She goes off, and says things like ‘embarrassed' and ‘ashamed to be part of Eureka'... Maybe this is her campaign strategy, to create as much uproar as possible." She said that questioning the police department's quality without Nielsen in charge is basically rabblerousing. "The whole idea that one man leaving will throw the City of Eureka into turmoil, it just isn't so," she said. "The police department will continue to function."
Brady said she wished that there would be more focus on the positive side of things. "When you look at the way Linda votes, when we're voting on things, most of the time it's 5-0, we agree on things," she said. "It's not like everyone is in lockstep, but most of the time we agree."
One of those 5-0 votes came back in March, when the council unanimously extended Tyson's contract by two years. That contract contained a twist, dropping a job security provision in place since 2000, when Tyson took the job after the council had fired several city managers. Back then, the council agreed Tyson could be fired only by a supermajority vote of 4-1. In March, it removed that supermajority clause, once again allowing the city manager to be fired on a simple 3-2 vote. Tyson said he suggested the change because the council is more stable now.
Atkins said that she had problems with Tyson even in March, but his far-reaching grip on the city and the lack of a competent successor made it necessary to keep him on. She said that part of the problem is that he's been the city manager for almost 11 years now. He is the main contact for new council members and helps show them the ropes of governance. As a consequence, she said, these new council members might feel beholden to him and vote in line with his directions.
Tyson was originally scheduled to retire in late 2010. He said he stayed, at the request of Madsen and Jager, partly to help rebuild a staff devastated by department heads retiring or moving out of the area. Atkins blames the departures on him, saying his dictatorial style has driven out the city attorney, the finance director, the community development director, and the personnel director. His overbearing presence was a problem, Atkins said, but firing Nielsen was the last straw. "This thing with the police chief, all the goodwill is gone, it's all broken," she said.
As petitions calling for his job circulate through Eureka, Tyson is weary of the accusations. "I have anything but a dictatorial style," he said. "I'm very inclusive." Department heads left city jobs for personal reasons or because they found better ones, he said, and many former employees have stayed in touch with him, some using him as a job reference. Tyson defended his record, saying that in his 31 years in public service, he's never had a bad review by a boss, excepting Atkins. "You don't see the outpouring from all the people who think I'm doing a good job," he said. "I've never abused my power. I have great respect for the public."
Whatever happens, when his contract expires in a little less than two years, he's out for good, he said. "I'm thinking about trying something new, something different," he said. "Lawn care service, river-boat guide, we'll see."