Rockville City Manager Faces Performance Improvement Plan in Surprise Session
In an extraordinary last-minute Closed Session held on Thursday morning, May 11, 2023, the Rockville City Council put the City Manager Rob DiSpirito into a three-month Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) for reasons unknown. Improvement Plan (PIP) is a formal, structured process designed to help underperforming employees identify and overcome performance issues. It outlines specific goals, expectations, and timelines for improvement, along with support, resources, and regular progress evaluations to facilitate success and growth.
When the Council came out of Closed Session, Councilmember Monique Ashton quickly moved for the PIP and was supported by Councilmember Beryl Feinberg. Mayor Bridget Newtown rushed for a vote without a discussion, but was interrupted by Councilmember Mark Pierzchala to note that, “I don’t know how the sequence of events unrolled but I’m not going to vote for it. I think things have moved past the point where a performance improvement plan is going to be effective. So I’m gonna vote against it. I had asked to make the first motion but that was not allowed, apparently. I’m not sure where that came from. Thank you.” The motion passed 4-1 with Councilmember Pierzchala voting against. A brief three-minute video is available at https://youtu.be/fIu7e9cHhoo, but of course, the closed session portion is held in secret and it’s unclear how long they debated the issue.
I typically discourage Closed Sessions because they are secret and prevent voters from knowing what’s happening—and Closed Sessions usually deal with major issues. Fortunately, Maryland has an Open Meetings Act to keep council and board meetings available to the public so they can be “in the room where it happens.” A quick introduction is available as FAQs, but here are a fundamentals:
- The Maryland Open Meeting Act lists 15 topics that the City Counci) may choose to discuss behind closed doors under specific conditions. These topics or “exceptions,” include personnel discussions about particular individuals, the receipt of legal advice from the public body’s attorney, and subjects that must be kept confidential under other laws. A discussion on “the appointment, employment, assignment, promotion, discipline, demotion, compensation, removal, resignation, or performance evaluation of an employee over whom the Mayor and Council has jurisdiction” is an appropriate reason for the Closed Session on May 11.
- Public bodies must make an agenda available before each meeting, either when notice is posted, if the items of business are known then, or as soon as practicable, but no later than 24 hours before the meeting. There is an exception for meetings held in response to emergencies. This Closed Session was not publicized as an emergency and the the agenda was posted on the city website on May 10 at 5:20 pm, that’s less than 18 hours in advance, so is in violation of the Act. Furthermore, it was not sent out as an email to those who subscribe to the City Council’s agendas (thanks to a blog reader who alerted me to this meeting).
- This meeting was not publicized an emergency, so why the rush? Two councilmembers had difficulties attending in person. Councilmember Myles was absent at the start of the meeting and showed up virtually later. Councilmember Ashton started the meeting virtually and joined in-person by the end. How much of the Closed Session discussion did they miss? Councilmember Ashton didn’t even notice that the vote to go into Closed Session occurred.
Most management leaders will emphasize that employees are the organization’s most important assets so how well are these assets being managed in the City of Rockville? Most of the current councilmembers lack significant experience in supervising employees and the City Council has a poor record of managing its most senior staff. The City Manager, City Attorney, and City Clerk have each been dismissed during Mayor Newton’s tenure. After a while, the only common denominator to these problems is the City Council.
The City Council needs to provide a better explanation for this decision and how they handle Closed Sessions. Or it’s time to rethink their privilege to serve.
May 21, 2023: This post was corrected to show a vote of 4-1 in the caption of the photo.