The Brain Drain | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

The Brain Drain 

A look inside Mayor Biskupski's first 100+ days

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Bill Haight knew there was a chance that his 27-year career in Salt Lake City's Information Management Services Department could come to an end when Jackie Biskupski settled into the mayor's office.

As director of the department for the past nine years, Haight says his position was "at-will," meaning that any mayor at any time could show him the door, for no reason. And that's exactly what happened in January, when Biskupski, in what was then an effort to clean house of city officials who she says didn't match up with her vision, fired Haight, D.J. Baxter, who oversaw the Redevelopment Agency, and Debra Alexander, director of human resources.

These firings, in addition to the departures of three other department heads, have emerged as the defining characteristics of Biskupski's first 100 days in office, say members of the city council and one of her most vocal supporters during the election, who now says he "made a mistake" in supporting the mayor.

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"It turns out this has been a case of 'watch out what you hope for' because things have taken a huge turn for the worse," says former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson. "I think Mayor Biskupski had no idea what she was doing, what she was getting into; she hadn't even learned anything about her own job and she came in very irresponsibly, in my own view, in terminating some incredibly competent, hard-working people, whose historical knowledge simply can't be replaced."

While Biskupski realizes that the personnel changes have sparked criticism, she says the departures were necessary to ensure that her top level lieutenants shared her vision for the city.

"It's really no different than any other leadership role," Biskupski tells City Weekly. "If you're a coach, you're going to bring in your assistant coaches that understand where you're coming from and are supportive of your vision."

Although six of the department head positions at the city turned over, Biskupski says she retained more than 100 other appointed employees who worked for the city prior to her arrival.

While personnel changes have earned the mayor criticism and headlines, Biskupski says that notable accomplishments have been made during her short time at the city's helm. In January, Biskupski says she worked hard to lobby the Legislature to cough up $27 million over the next three years to help provide services for the city's swelling homeless population.

"That was a big win on Capitol Hill that I'm extremely proud of," Biskupski says.

When that work was finished, Biskupski says she once again turned her attention toward vetting her top-level employees, and making appointments—a process that is ongoing.

On April 26, Biskupski announced that interim Chief of Police Mike Brown had officially been selected as her chief, and six other department heads were rehired for their positions.

As time passes, though, members of the city council wonder when Biskupski intends to find replacements for key positions that remain vacant, including in the Redevelopment Agency and departments of community and economic development, public services and information technology.

"We do call it 'the brain drain' with what's happened in Salt Lake City," says James Rogers, the council chair, who represents District 1.

Lisa Adams, who represents District 7, says that Biskupski's decision to cast aside top-level managers, many of whom had dozens of years of experience, has taken its toll on the city. Prior to the announcement on April 26 that Brown and several other department heads were being retained, Adams says uncertainty ruled the day in most every major department.

While Adams says the first few months of Biskupski's tenure have been "rocky," and she hasn't hesitated to criticize the mayor for her personnel moves, Adams says that for the sake of the city, the mayor needs to be successful.

"I really want this to work," Adams says. "I want success here, but I'm worried that if it takes too long to figure things out, citizens will start to feel it if things aren't running the way they need to be run. Every week that goes by that we don't have leadership in those positions, it worries me."

As Biskupski swept out longtime city employees, she moved to replace some of them with her former colleagues at Salt Lake County. The results have been mixed.

Biskupski's pick to replace public services director Rick Graham, who was fired after 35 years on the job, was April Townsend, associate director of finance and operations for the Salt Lake County library system.

Townsend lasted less than a month, resigning to continue pursuing her doctorate degree.

Jeff Niermeyer, a 25-year veteran of public utilities, who served as director for nearly a decade, also left the city as Biskupski took the reins, though he was not fired.

Biskupski's proposed replacement for Niermeyer was Mike Reberg, who was head of county animal services. Just before his public vetting before the city council, Reberg withdrew his name for consideration, citing criticisms from the council and a national engineering group, which focused on his lack of experience.

These firings also cost taxpayers some serious coin. In severance and benefits packages for the departing employees, Adams says, the city paid out nearly $1 million, which was not budgeted and therefore had to be drained from the city's rainy day fund.

Anderson, who fundraised on behalf of Biskupski, lent his voice and authority to her radio advertisements and railed against former mayor Ralph Becker on everything from construction of bike lanes to the prevalence of a city spokesman commenting on the mayor's behalf, says his enthusiasm for Biskupski was a misstep.

"I clearly made a mistake," Anderson says. "If I'd have had any idea that she was going to terminate such amazingly talented, hard working, effective people at the top of crucial city departments, I never would have supported her."

On Anderson, Biskupski says she believes the former mayor's strong words are rooted in his personal relationships with some of the employees who were let go. And the seeming abundance of criticism over the personnel changes, which Biskupski says are commonplace at the state and federal levels when new administrations take over, have been amplified because she's a woman.

Biskupski says female leadership is not the norm in Salt Lake City, where she is the second female mayor, and is also openly gay.

"With those parts of my identity, you'll always have people who are going to be naysayers, who question my ability to lead simply because of those two things," Biskupski says.

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