Former Davenport City Administrator Jim Pierce appears to be the top candidate for his old job in Ohio, a prospect that raises questions about the work of an executive-search firm he hired.
One day after he submitted his resignation to the City of Davenport, Pierce was in Huber Heights, Ohio, as one of four finalists for its city-manager position. The kicker is that The Mercer Group, the firm Pierce chose to conduct searches for Davenport's police and fire chiefs, is also leading Huber Heights' selection process. The Mercer Group's contract with Davenport could total as much as $30,000.

The situation has prompted Mayor Phil Yerington and other members of the city council to wonder whether the Mercer Group has a conflict of interest. City attorney John Martin said Tuesday that he had not yet reviewed the city's agreement with The Mercer Group to determine whether the company has fulfilled the terms of its contract so far.

The city could go to court to try to get the contract with The Mercer Group invalidated if it thinks the management consultant has failed to fulfill its contractual obligations.

Pierce served as Huber Heights' city manager from 1991 to 1996, when he was hired away by then-Davenport Mayor Pat Gibbs. Huber Heights Mayor Jack Hensley had nothing but compliments for Pierce's work, especially in the area of economic development. "He did a lot for our city," he said. "If it was left up to me, I'd hire Pierce." Hensley only votes to break ties on the eight-member city council. He added that the council could confirm a city manager as soon as its November 27 meeting. The advertised pay for the position is between $85,000 and $100,000.

One of the contractual questions raised by Pierce's candidacy in Huber Heights is whether The Mercer Group violated one of its "guarantees" to the City of Davenport. According to one of the items listed under "The Mercer Group, Inc., Guarantees" in the proposal approved by the city council in June, "We will not recruit candidates from a client organization two years after completion of a search assignment without the full agreement of the client."

At issue is the relationship between Pierce and the Merger Group's Tom Dority, who conducted the police-chief search in Davenport, and Jim Mercer, who is conducting Huber Heights' city-administrator search. The River Cities' Reader left two messages apiece this week for Dority and Mercer, and neither returned the calls. Pierce did not return a message left at his home.

The question of timing is also important, because Pierce was interviewed in Huber Heights as one of four finalists for the job the day after he resigned with a $93,5000 severance package he negotiated for himself.

The application deadline for the Huber Heights city-manager position was October 4, according to an ad for the position. Pierce's imminent departure didn't become clear until late October, when Mayor Phil Yerington called for the administrator's resignation in the wake of the appointment of Scott County Sheriff Mike Bladel to the position of Davenport police chief. Council members were upset that Pierce did not tell them about negotiations with Bladel until after a job offer had been made.

If Pierce applied for the Huber Heights position by the application deadline, The Mercer Group should have been compelled to disclose that to the City of Davenport and get its permission, according to Mercer's own proposal.

And if Pierce applied for the job only when his fate in Davenport was clear, The Mercer Group bent its deadline rules to make room for him.
Either way, Pierce was pursuing the job before he officially left his post in Davenport.

Neither Huber Heights Mayor Hensley nor City Council member Mark Campbell could remember when they first found out that Pierce had been chosen as a finalist. But Campbell said he knows that it was before the day that Pierce began his interview visit to Huber Heights. "It was close to the end of the process," he said. But "it would have had to have been before November 10."

It's also possible that Pierce's severance package violates city ordinance.

Pierce's employment contract states, "In the event Employee is terminated by the Council and during such time that Employee is willing, and able, to perform his/her duties under this agreement, then in that event Employer agrees to pay Employee a lump sum cash payment equal to eight months aggregate salary."

Although Pierce was allowed to resign rather than face termination, he used his employment contract as leverage in negotiating the terms of his departure.

But even though the city council approved the agreement on July 17, 1996, the payout clause could be invalidated if it conflicts with city code, which is explicit about a severance package for the city administrator: "After completing 12 months service, the city administrator may not be removed without 60 days notice or 60 days pay at the highest salary received."

Martin said that the code was written to "provide some benefit in the absence of any other agreement" and does not prevent a larger severance package.

But another interpretation is that the code doesn't allow for severance pay below or above the 60-day amount. In other words, Pierce might have gotten nearly four times the salary in his severance package than he was due. Eight months of salary accounted for more than $73,000 of Pierce's severance.

Somebody would need to sue the city to resolve the issue and determine whether the severance package or employment agreement conforms with city code.

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