Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Expect Luther to play well in Peoria


Expect Luther to play well in Peoria

Can mayor and council play well here?

We learned Tuesday evening that City Administrator Lori Luther’s fiscal tightrope act will be opening in Peoria, possibly next month. A reasonable reading of Luther’s record in the city of Waukesha would lead most of us to conclude that she will play rather well in Peoria. As former Mayor Larry Nelson told me Tuesday evening as the news broke, Luther has done more to save the taxpayers money than anyone in city government.

It’s no secret that if Luther had a preference, it was to stay in the city long-term. Her husband worked for the Waukesha school system, making the situation ideal. It’s that desire to make a long-term commitment to a community that made Luther so attractive to Peoria.

Yet the cause of Luther looking for a position elsewhere is inescapable. The ideal situation in Waukesha was soured with Mayor Jeff Scrima’s behavior making it impossible for Luther to continue.

It’s worth noting what Peoria sees in Luther that some in Waukesha cannot. The Peoria Journal Star reports that county council members are looking forward to working with Luther because of her ability to get along with others. They expect that she will work well with both the staff and with the board members.

As for any concern about her relationship with Mayor Scrima, Peoria County board member Stephen Morris was quoted as saying, “If we had learned that her board was after her, maybe it would’ve been a different story.”

In other words, they are not taking our mayor’s judgment into account, choosing to dismiss it entirely. It’s amazing how clear-eyed the view is from over 200 miles away.

So now we enter the new phase of government in Waukesha, preparing to pick Luther’s successor. If the process remains unchanged, the council members still have the final approval of any candidate that is put before them, and also have final approval of any contract between the city and the next administrator.

When the search for a city administrator was last conducted, the city hired a professional search consultant to help identify candidates and to guide the interview process. While some might criticize the expense, given that Scrima is our mayor a little outside guidance would certainly be prudent. A little money spent early might avoid a big lawsuit later if Scrima asks applicants inappropriate questions.

When the search was last conducted, the search committee included the mayor, the council president and the chairmen of the city’s four standing committees. This had the benefit of causing aldermen to “buy in” to the process. It also means that a reasonable percentage of the council would have some familiarity with the candidate prior to the candidate’s presentation to the full council.

For the good of the city, the mayor should make the process a little smoother by allowing the past good practices to guide the selection of the next city administrator.

Unfortunately, we have some negative history to guide us, as well. Last year, the primary responsibility for supervising the city administrator was taken away from the mayor after his behavior toward Luther prompted a complaint to human resources. While the council was always the one government body that had the authority to fire the city administrator, the council members made themselves her direct supervisors.

We also have the strange phenomenon of some details of Luther’s recent job search ending up being leaked in pseudonymous comments, likely by Scrima’s supporters, on a local news website. Granted, they might be taking the lead from a mayor who once surreptitiously tape-recorded a meeting with staff. Still, this possible stalking behavior is not only creepy, but possibly a threat to the city administrator’s safety.

The council members should take steps to investigate, starting with an outside, independent computer forensic expert to see if Luther’s email account was hacked. Not only because they have an obligation to their employee, but also because they have an obligation to the next city administrator to demonstrate this behavior won’t be tolerated.

It would be difficult under normal conditions to replace someone of Luther’s caliber. Waukesha under Mayor Scrima has been anything but normal lately. It will be interesting to see the quality of the applicants. Put me down as a pessimist.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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