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Helena leaders, city manager agree to contract termination

Posted at 9:47 AM, Feb 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-04 11:47:29-05

HELENA — Helena city leaders and City Manager Ana Cortez have officially agreed to terminate her contract.

The Helena City Commission voted unanimously on Monday afternoon to approve a mutual agreement with Cortez to end her employment.

Under the agreement, Cortez will submit her resignation on Feb. 5 and it will take effect the next day.

She will receive a total payment of $163,887.51 from the city, which covers nine months of salary and benefits, as well as accrued time off. The city will also provide her with a reference letter.

The separation agreement comes just weeks after Cortez was placed on administrative leave for the second time in a year.

She has been on paid administrative leave since Jan. 17, pending an investigation into a complaint filed against her.

However, City Commissioner Andres Haladay said this decision should not be seen as a reflection on Cortez’s performance as city manager.

He praised her for her leadership, and for her success in accomplishing the commission’s goals.

“Without a doubt, this past year under Manager Cortez has been the first time that I, in my six years, have seen commission direction and priorities taken seriously,” he said.

Haladay highlighted a number of changes that Cortez oversaw in the city, including reorganizing city departments, implementing a new snow removal policy and putting together the city’s first two-year budget.

He argued that Cortez had faced opposition throughout her tenure from Helena city employees who were reluctant to accept those changes.

“When you try to rework a culturally broken institution, you upset people,” Haladay said. “You upset people who have not been subject to accountability; you ask people to work on things they don’t want to work on; in some cases, you simply ask people to work.”

Last summer, an outside investigation cleared Cortez of harassment allegations from two city employees, but it recommended the city work on improving communications between her and staff.

The investigator said the evidence showed Cortez did not violate any city policies, though they said it appeared her management style had “created a rift between Cortez and many city staff.”

It added that some city employees were “having difficulty recognizing Cortez and the [Helena City] Commission's authority to make changes.”

Haladay said Cortez’s departure was caused by a “mistake” the commission had made. He pointed to a special commission meeting, called on Jan. 8 for the purposes of discussing a possible “City Organizational Climate Survey.”

Haladay said the meeting amounted to a public evaluation of Cortez, contrary to the terms of her contract, and that it was intended to “embarrass and humiliate the Manager publicly.”

“The Jan. 8 meeting was a bad choice, and it was a $160,000 bad choice,” he said.

Mayor Wilmot Collins and Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin also praised Cortez’s work.

“This is a loss for the city, but the positive changes and the new trajectory done under the incredible leadership of City Manager Ana Cortez can have a lasting impact on the future of this community,” said O’Loughlin.

Commissioner Emily Dean, one of two commission members elected for the first time in November, did not speak specifically about Cortez, but said she was committed to helping the city move forward at this time, "my focus is on the future."

Commissioner Sean Logan, the other new member, declined to comment.

Collins said the city will immediately begin working on a process to find an interim city manager.