Mike Letcher fired: 9OYS viewers weigh in
Viewers have strong opinions about his job performance and openness
Notes by: Forrest Carr, KGUN9 News Director
On Wednesday, one day after Tucson City Manager Mike Letcher announced his intention to depart 11 months from now, the Tucson City Council voted to send him on his way immediately. Even councilwoman Karin Uhlich, a staunch ally who'd expressed strong support just the previous day, voted to terminate, saying that Letcher was an honorable man who nevertheless would not want to serve a divided council.
If KGUN9 News' most recent web poll is any indication, before the council made up its collective mind, many Tucson citizens had already made up theirs. On Tuesday 77% of those voting rated Letcher's job performance as poor. The poll, it should be noted, is not scientifically accurate. But it is one measure of displeasure. Viewer comments shared with KGUN9 News are another. More on those in a moment.
It is not KGUN9 News' role to render opinions on any official's performance - with one exception. We state clearly in our Viewers' Bill of Rights that we believe public officials have a duty to conduct the public's business in public. As loyal 9 On Your Side viewers know, we make the level of public responsiveness that we receive from such officials in covering the news part of our reporting. On some days, when those officials work especially hard to keep the facts from you, that level of responsiveness is 100% of our reporting.
Over the past two years found Mr. Letcher to be fairly responsive personally to most of our inquiries. Sometimes we had to wait a day or two for an on-camera interview -- he's a busy guy. But usually he made himself available to us -- and thereby, to you -- in the end.
In terms of providing information, however, his administration did not get a stellar grade with us. Most recently, the city dragged its feet for weeks on a 911-related public records request from 9 On Your Side that should have been filled immediately. Then, when it did respond, the response was incomplete, requiring KGUN9 News to file supplemental requests. When it comes to showing great concern for keeping the public fully informed, this was a less than model performance.
The way the city handled the 911 issue internally also is quite instructive about the city's regard for your right to know. One 911 dispatch center employee who tried to raise a red flag about the 911 problems got canned for his trouble, after printing out a confidential report detailing 911 glitches -- glitches that may have contributed to the death of a child. Maybe his actions, however well intentioned, merited such a response. Maybe they didn't. But has anyone stopped to ask why that employee felt it necessary to put his job at risk in order to get his supervisors' attention?
Letcher is on record as saying that the 911 glitches never compromised public safety. But at the same time, out of fear that it might get sued over the death of that child, the city issued two gag orders to employees barring discussion of that incident, then followed up with a third barring 911 center employees from publicly answering any questions on any subject at all, period. (The actual gag order emails themselves are available in the "related documents" section at left).
KGUN9 News has spoken behind the scenes with some of those employees. Two points stand out in those conversations: one, those workers really care about your safety and they desperately wanted you to know what was going on; but two, they felt that it would cost them their jobs to speak out. In light of those gag orders and in light of what had just happened to their fellow employee, it's hard to argue that those fears were baseless. In fact, if there are any additional steps that Letcher's administration could have taken to keep you in the dark, it's hard to imagine what they might have been.
How do problems like the 911 glitches erupt into embarrassing scandals? That happens when those in charge keep the facts from the public, and then those facts get out anyway. It follows, then, that a really good way to avoid such embarrassments is to keep the public fully informed at all times. But many public officials never learn this basic principle. From time immemorial, too many of them prefer to conduct the public's business behind closed doors -- or "in smoke filled rooms" as the saying used to go back when smoking was less restricted than it is today. Then when the facts finally do get out, as they almost always do, the reaction from such officials is totally predictable: blame the media; blame whoever gave the facts to the media; and if it's possible to so, find and punish any whistleblowers immediately.
You can see those forces at work in Letcher's letter. First, he states that he, too, wants openness, writing, "My focus is not to have this organization hide problems, but to have open transparency so problems are brought forward and are corrected."
Sounds good so far. But he then spends the next several pages railing at city councilman Steve Kozachik, whose primary contribution to this affair was to try to bring about the very transparency of which Letcher speaks. Then, in a discussion about "lessons learned," after talking about the need to restore public trust, Letcher presents this take-away: "We need to make sure that more employees... give city management a chance to solve the problem before involving the Mayor and Council or the media."
In other words, the best way to handle these kinds of issues is to deal with them and bury them before anyone -- your elected leaders included -- has a chance to even suspect anything was amiss. Thus, while stating a desire to have the public trust him, Letcher betrays his lack of trust for the public. The message to you: You want to the truth? You can't handle the truth. Wiser heads than you will let you know what they think you need to know when, in their sole opinion, you need to know it.
The real lesson that Letcher and the city should have taken away is that if the public had been fully informed from the beginning, there would have been news reports, but no "scandal." And perhaps no jobs (we're counting two down as of now) need have been lost.
The City of Tucson is certainly not the only entity or person with whom KGUN9 News has had to fight over the last few months in order to make the public 's business public. This "father knows best" attitude is endemic to the breed -- but fortunately, although the attitude is common among public officials, it's not universal. After Letcher dumped this whole mess into the lap of Fire Chief Jim Critchley - an action Letcher admits he took because of Kozachik's "interference" -- note that one of Critchley's first acts was to promise more transparency, and to state that he was lifting that employee gag order. If he's sincere, then he understands a basic principle that seems to elude so many of his fellow public servants: "Sunshine is the best disinfectant." The public isn't just along for the ride; it's a partner in the governmental process. It's a lesson that Letcher's replacement, whoever that person turns out to be, will do well to note.
Below is a sample of what KGUN9 viewers think.
Joanne Gogerty-Gauthier writes (via Facebook): "Na Na Na Hey Hey Hey. Goodbye!"
Linda McEvoy writes (via Facebook): "My fear is, other than Steve K, that the same morons on the city council will just get another Letcher in office who they can control as their "yes" man. I'm sick and tired of the losers the council keeps putting in office!"
"thunderbird63" writes: "It's about time he left. He should be removed immediately not 12 months from now."
"Todd DebtFree" writes: "In truth, I am only interested in a functional City Council. Nothing else really matters. There is a hierarchy that employees should follow. There is a time to fix things without dogma. Which is right here I do not know. Get it done, bottom line."
"TaitAZ" writes: "We would be in the dark about city issues if it wasn't for Kozachik doing his job. He's not just on the city council as just another politician worried about his job."
"jbviper1" writes: "Good! Great News, long time coming."
Bob Lee writes (via Facebook): The problem is...most of Mike's "bosses" don't have much in the way of real-world business experience. Mike may have tried to work around this fact. Many Dept. Heads covering their own butts. Lack of transparency resulted. City Hall Tenth Floor chain of command fuzzy. Train wreck about to occur. If Mike is still the engineer a week from today, expect the wreck to occur."
Wayne Ruth writes (via Facebook): "Can't say I'm happy with any of our people running Tucson."
"rladdi" writes: "This is the best news of the year. He just has not been effective at his job, nor does he qualify for the job. He has created one crisis after another, last being the 911 system. He never blamed himself for any of Tucson problems."
"Joshua Drezek" writes (via Facebook): "Is there something lower than an F? He should have been fired 2 years ago."
Janel Tanner writes (via Facebook): "I think the city of Tucson is the city of secrets. Mike is getting hit with the real truth from Kozachik. Kozachik is bringing the truth to Arizona and I think he should be the city manager."
Kevin Romero writes (via Facebook): "Its the uppity ups that should be fired! .....he could only do what they allowed him to do!!!!"
Kristen Bury writes (via Facebook): "The media need to continue to dig into public institutions in Tucson, the gag order and missing $$ is prominent in k-12 education and community college, too. The management in Tucson is antiquated & dictatorial. So outdated it threatens the leadership & vision of the future of Tucson & Southern Az. Keep it up KGUN 9!"
Janel Tanner writes: "I think the City of Tucson is the city of secrets. Mike is getting hit with the real truth from Kozachik. Kozachik is bringing the truth to Arizona and I think he should be the city manager."
What do you think? Join the discussion. You can post your comments here at the bottom of this story; email us at email@example.com; or post on our Facebook page.