Douglas County commissioners are challenging City Hall to share more authority over personnel in joint city-county government operations.
County commissioners on Wednesday said they were disappointed that Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Director Linda Finger had decided to resign her position at the end of the year - a decision that came after city officials told Finger that her future at City Hall was no longer bright.
The county pays one-sixth of the department's budget, but no county official played a role in Finger's evaluation.
"We were mystified by it," County Commission Chairman Charles Jones said of the circumstances surrounding Finger's resignation.
That's why County Administrator Craig Weinaug earlier this week sent a letter to City Manager Mike Wildgen, asking for an agreement spelling out how the city and county will work together on hiring, firing and evaluating joint department heads.
The city and county jointly operate the planning department, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical, and the Emergency Communications Department, which runs the emergency dispatch center.
The city pays about 75 percent of the budgets for the planning and fire departments, retaining control over employees there. The county funds the majority of the dispatch center and has final authority over its personnel.
City leaders said they wanted to address the county's concerns.
"If we have a joint department, then we should have joint decision-making," Mayor Boog Highberger said. "But I don't think it works to have true dual authority. One body has to have the final authority."
County commissioners said they didn't want final authority - just a bigger voice.
"I think we want the city to know that we're going to be carrying a little bigger stick," County Commissioner Jere McElhaney said. "When we have questions we want them answered, when we have concerns we want them addressed and when we have ideas we want them listened to."
McElhaney said he thought Finger had been doing an excellent job in working with the County Commission. Jones and County Commissioner Bob Johnson agreed.
And McElhaney said he remained concerned about a dispute between city and county commissioners earlier this year on whether to redesign Fire Station No. 5 after bids for the project near 19th and Iowa streets came in $500,000 more than expected.
All three county commissioners expressed support for redesigning the project, but city commissioners disagreed, and the project moved ahead with the higher price tag.
"I feel like our voices weren't heard by city commissioners and that our opinions didn't matter," McElhaney said.
That's why the county should have had a greater role in hiring a new fire chief, McElhaney said. Mark Bradford was recently promoted to that job from deputy chief; McElhaney served on a committee that interviewed the three finalists for the position, but said he thought it should have been defined more formally what role the county would play in the hiring.
Wildgen said he was open to working with the county in future hirings, including the upcoming search for a new planning director.
"I've tried to make it clear that I wanted all their input," Wildgen said. "I intend to do the same thing with the planning position. It will be a wide-open process."
Wildgen said he may have a recommendation by mid-month on whether to hire a search firm to help with the process. He said he hoped to have the position filled by the end of spring.