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Interim manager's job proposal splits Phoenix council

PHOENIX — City Council members remain divided over whether interim City Manager Joe Wrabek should take a planning position he built into the budget after members said in open session Monday that questions about Wrabek's ethics led to the police chief's resignation.

"I don't want him moved to a lateral position," Councilman Terry Helfrich said Wednesday. "I just felt we ought to open the position up and if Joe wants to apply for it, then go for it."

Helfrich said he was "very unhappy about the chief leaving" and that Wrabek "failed to manage."

"A City Council member's position, or it should be, is when somebody raises a red flag about ethics, it's really our job to find out," Helfrich added.

Police Chief Kurt Barthel tendered his resignation "with great regret" during Monday's council meeting but declined to give a reason. Wrabek then announced he wanted to move to planning and that he'd built the position into this year's budget.

Councilman Gary Reed told the audience that Barthel resigned because of questions over Wrabek and City Recorder Betty Smith's ethics and truthfulness and that the council wanted to find a new city manager.

Monday's meeting followed a series of closed-door sessions held by the council to discuss personnel issues. Under Oregon law, media may attend executive sessions but not report on them.

Council President Bruce Sophie said an internal investigation into a personnel dispute between Barthel and Smith found no one guilty of wrongdoing.

Wrabek on Wednesday said he wanted to focus on planning rather than serve as planner and city manager.

"The only one I had talked to about it ahead of time was Bruce, though Bruce had indicated the idea was likely to meet with the approval of most of the council. I did want to be sure of that before bringing it up," Wrabek said in an e-mail to the Mail Tribune.

"If it was Gary's idea to force me to change positions, he didn't tell me."

Reed declined further comment Wednesday.

Sophie said the council had yet to discuss with the city attorney how to respond to Reed's disclosure of information from the closed sessions.

Sophie said the city would move Wrabek to the planning department as soon as a new interim manager could be hired.

"We haven't officially said there's a long-term planning position," Sophie said. "We're taking Joe's existing money and moving him over to finish out that time frame of his contract, through June 30."

Asked about Wrabek's previous job performance — he was fired as city manager by the Union City Council in August 2006 over a personnel dispute — Sophie acknowledged that the council was aware of Wrabek's background but that his job review was positive.

Wrabek was hired as interim manager last year when former City Manager Dale Shaddox resigned after announcing a $700,000 shortfall in city coffers and proposing a controversial surcharge of $37 to $39 a month to fund public safety. The council approved a $20 surcharge, which was repealed by voters last September.

Since that time, the city has determined the shortfall was not as dire as predicted, left some positions unfilled and used urban renewal money to help shore up the budget.

Barthel suggested Monday that the city should consider combining its police force with Talent's. The two departments have worked together for many years, he said.

Barthel, who said Reed's statements pertaining to ethics concerns were factual, declined further comment to the Mail Tribune.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.

He did say, however, that he has tentatively accepted a position at the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City and is undergoing an interview process. He said he had not pursued the White City position until he decided to resign from Phoenix.