Turnover, forced and otherwise, in Branson is quickly changing the makeup of city government.
On April 19, the Board of Aldermen held a special closed session and voted to get rid of City Administrator Stanley Dobbins.
The day after the meeting, the city posted a news release on its website that stated Dobbins was put on administrative leave through his planned retirement on April 30.
But according to Dobbins, he did not have firm retirement plans.
Dobbins was appointed to that post in 2017. He joined Branson city government in 2012 as assistant police chief and was promoted to chief in 2016.
The Board of Alderman named City Clerk Lisa Westfall acting city administrator, and she is now serving both roles. Assistant City Administrator John Manning resigned April 12, the same day three new members of the Board of Aldermen were sworn into office.
At the April 26 regular meeting of the Board of Aldermen, Mayor Larry Milton explained that another city staffer, Finance Director Jamie Rouch, was dismissed on April 22, not by action of the board, but by the acting city administrator with advice from city legal counsel. Stacy McAllister, assistant finance director, also was dismissed by Westfall, according to the mayor.
“This board had nothing to do with Jamie’s and Stacy’s termination,” Milton said in response to a public comment at the meeting. “The board did not know about this until after the fact.”
The dismissal of the city staff was a case of promises made and kept, according to the official city release.
“As I recently shared, you would see staff changes at City Hall. It remains your board’s intent that you have a city government that serves you, the people of Branson,” said Milton in the release.
Milton, who did not respond to Springfield Business Journal’s emails, phone calls or a request by Facebook Messenger for comment on this story, had forecast staff changes on his mayoral Facebook page on April 14.
Milton said that in electing him as mayor in 2021 and in choosing a new Board of Aldermen over the past two years, residents had voiced their concerns, and the board was going to act on them. Dobbins voiced his confusion about the change.
“I wish I could tell you,” Dobbins said when asked why he was terminated. “I will tell you that sometimes you encounter individuals in life that have different personalities than the vast majority of those in society, and sometimes, along with those personalities, they quite frankly just seem to want change for the sake of change, rather than any rational thought process.”
Milton’s April 14 Facebook statement did not spell out the thinking behind the move, but instead stressed the power of the board.
“I want to make one thing very clear to all of our citizens: We’ve got this,” the Facebook post states. “Your elected board and mayor have a plan, and we are ready to implement it.”
The message then promises government of, by and for the people, with “quality service like never before.”
What just happened?
According to Dobbins, Milton came to his office shortly after being elected in April 2021 and asked if Dobbins had considered leaving the city. He said Milton asked him what it would take to get him to leave earlier than 2024, when Dobbins would turn 65 and planned to retire.
Dobbins said he told Milton he would consider early retirement with the right incentive.
With two years left to work, Dobbins said he thought it would be fair if the city were to compensate him for one of those years.
Dobbins said the mayor asked when he would want to enact the plan.
“I said, ‘To be fair, let’s make it May or June,’ and we left it at that,” Dobbins said.
Dobbins said when he received sudden notice of his administrative leave, he was surprised. He said he was not given a reason for the move.
When asked if he got his year of pay, Dobbins declined to discuss particulars.
Draft minutes from the April 22 closed session show that Dobbins will receive payment equal to nine months of salary, plus reimbursement costs of up to 12 months of COBRA health insurance, if selected.
Dobbins’ salary in 2020 was listed in public records at $192,471, and nine months’ salary is $144,353.
Dobbins said he signed a settlement with the city and does not plan any legal action against them. He clarified, “I wish them all well.”
The question remains whether the moves by the mayor and the Board of Aldermen are aligned with a strategic vision for the city.
Calls and emails to two members of the board, Cody Fenton, elected in April 2021, and Marshall Howden, elected in April 2022, received no response by press time.
Milton has a personal stake in the success of the city as the owner and broker of Branson Hills Realty and co-owner of Main Street Marina and Main Street Lake Cruises.
Branson had a record year in 2021 with $17 million in tourism tax revenue, 24% above the city’s all-time high in 2018. Estimated visitation was a little more than 10 million for the year, with a previous record of 9.1 million, according to past SBJ reporting.
In addition to losing a city administrator, an assistant city administrator and a finance director, Branson had two other key resignations recently: Joel Hornickel, planning and development director, who left Nov. 1, 2021, for a job in the private sector, and Chris Lebeck, city attorney, whose separation from the city was negotiated at a Jan. 20 meeting of the Board of Aldermen and who is now senior prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit for Greene County. Lebeck continues with the city as a contracted legal consultant through June 30. Their positions have not yet been filled.
“I don’t have a clue,” Dobbins said when asked where the city was heading with its pared-down staff.
“Right now, they have an individual acting as interim city administrator who does not have the qualifications for the position,” he said.
A process has not yet been announced to fill the position permanently.
“At this moment, we’re in the middle of an audit,” Dobbins said. “I hope for the best for the city because the citizens don’t deserve anything less.”
SBJ asked Jason Outman, president and CEO of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention and Visitors Bureau, if he knew the strategic vision of the current Board of Aldermen.
“Honestly, I don’t,” he said. “I don’t have much to comment on that because I haven’t had a chance to sit down with the mayor and the new aldermen yet to determine what their vision is.”
As for the former Branson staff members, Outman said the chamber experienced no challenges with any of them.
“We think that the leadership they provided was probably what Branson needed to help guide Branson through some difficult times,” he said, referring to measures, like a temporary city shutdown and making, taken during the COVID-19 health crisis.
“As times change and as leaders change, and as residents of the city feel that a new direction should be taken, those things tend to happen where leadership will look for new individuals to help guide the city forward.”
Outman said the chamber works in tandem with the city no matter who is sitting in key staffing positions.
He noted Dobbins was part of his own hiring process.
“He was one of the first people I knew when I moved here,” Outman said. “We had a good relationship there, and I feel as though our organization worked well with the city.”
Outman added, “The goal of this organization, working in tandem with the city, is to help drive economic impact.”
Bill Skains, who lost his bid for a third term at alderman in April, spoke at the April 26 board meeting to clap back at the board for its dismissals.
He expressed concern that one of the dismissed parties has a daughter with cancer and can’t bear the loss of health insurance. He also noted that city staff are scared.
“They’re in tears over all this,” he said. “Branson does not need this. Don’t treat people like this.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May the all-items inflation index surged 8.6% over the past year, the highest increase since 1981.