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Behind Closed Doors: West is In, Yeager is Out in Covington

Something peculiar took place at Tuesday night's Covington city commission meeting.

Item 4 on the agenda was an order approving the employment of Thomas M. West as the city's new economic development director. If approved, he would start on December 1 at an annual salary of $115,000.

But the item was never voted on. And West got the job anyway.

"Mr. West was hired already by the city manager under the authority given to him by the city commission," Mayor Joe Meyer said from the dais, before moving on with the rest of the meeting.

A week prior, City Manager David Johnston spoke of West's impressive resume and though he is currently based in Lexington, where he works for Indianapolis-based consulting firm Thomas P. Miller & Associates, he has connections here as a former director of the Covington Business Council.

But the newly created job had not been advertised for and West was the only candidate publicly considered. In fact, Mayor Joe Meyer told The River City News that West had applied for another position, which City Commissioner Bill Wells said was the former development manager's job, vacated by Donald Warner who resigned in February, at a salary under $90,000.

Meyer knew West from his time in Covington and worked with him when both were in Frankfort during Governor Steve Beshear's administration. Meyer's last Frankfort job under Beshear was as secretary of Education and Workforce Development Cabinet. West was executive director of the Kentucky Workforce Investment Board from 2009 to 2013, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Renaissance Covington executive director Katie Meyer, daughter of Mayor Meyer, also worked with West and Thomas P. Miller & Associates on a consulting project in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 2015 and 2016, according to LinkedIn.

At Tuesday night's meeting, when the item came for a vote, and after former city commissioner Chuck Eilerman urged the commission to advertise the position and solicit resumes from other possible candidates, the mayor stopped the proceeding and announced that there was no need for a vote at all.

City Manager Johnston, Meyer said, had already been directed to make the hire by a majority of members of the city commission. Such a hire can be made directly when an emergency is declared.

City Commissioner Bill Wells was not happy with the way things went.

"It was never done publicly. This job should have been advertised," Wells told The River City News after the meeting. "We may have just made the greatest hire on Earth, and we may have just made the biggest mistake. We'll never know."

"There was some debate, but the direction I had from the commission was to go ahead and offer Mr. West the position and use my emergency powers," Johnston said after the meeting. He said the economic development staff of Suzanne Gettys and Ross Patten "are seeking direction." As opportunities and challenges for the city pile up, such as the creation of a parking authority and the impending departure of the IRS, the city needs to place economic development higher on its list, Johnston said. 

There have been no major economic development announcements made this year involving projects that originated with the current city commission after consecutive years of such announcements involving the arrival of companies like CTI Clinical Trials and multiple large residential projects.

But since late last year and all through 2017, staff members have departed City Hall at an unusually rapid pace.

Some left by choice, and others, like previous city manager Larry Klein, were pushed out.

Add development director/city engineer Mike Yeager to the latter list.

Johnston confirmed to The River City News that following a closed-door meeting with the city commission, Yeager was asked to resign or be terminated. The 8-year veteran of Covington City Hall was expected to give his answer Wednesday, Johnston said. As of this writing, Yeager is still listed as an employee on the city website.

"I think there's been some concerns about his judgment," said Johnston, who was hired in July after a national search to replace Klein. Yeager was unfavorably reviewed in a private investigation launched by the city commission that found disorganization in the code enforcement department, one of several areas of city government that Yeager oversaw as part of a reorganization strategy under the previous city manager and commission.

In addition to what the investigator, a private attorney from Lexington, found about the management of the code enforcement department, Yeager was blasted for submitting an open records request to the City of Blue Ash, Oh. in order to obtain negative information about an employee that worked in Covington and Blue Ash so that that info could be passed on to the investigator.

Meyer told the Enquirer that Yeager "undermined" the investigation.

Yeager oversaw and reported publicly on nearly every infrastructure project, from roads and sidewalks to Riverfront Commons and the Licking River Greenway & Trails. Johnston said that Rick Davis, public works director and assistant city engineer, will take on the bulk of that work in the interim.

Johnston said that he has experienced similar circumstances to what Yeager is going through, having been in city government for years. "I've been part of changes of council and been asked to resign three times. It's the hazard of public sector management," he said. "It happens, and we're tying to treat him fairly.

"He's a good engineer. For eight years he gave the city great work and just sometimes you need to have a change."

Other key positions remain vacant, such as finance director, and most recently, communications and marketing director. Also on the horizon is the long-awaited results of an organizational analysis, conducted by the same firm that recommended the hiring of Johnston, that will suggest how the city government's operations should be structured.

The report is not yet finished, Johnston said. It began in May after the city commission awarded the $45,000 contract to Municipal Solutions without a public bid process, citing, like with the hiring of the new economic development director, an emergency.

"I look to use that as another management tool at my disposal as we look to craft the city organization," Johnston said.

Meanwhile, a sequel to the investigation that led to Yeager's ouster is forthcoming. When the first half was released, it teased another batch of findings related to "the improper use of public resources for a private purpose."

It was supposed to be released in early November. Johnston said it would come out this month. 

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher