The Newburgh City Council stood out openly against City Manager Richard Herbek on Monday night, with three of five council members saying or implying that they would at the very least not renew his contract, which expires in January. Whether or not he will be terminated for being sighted in his car with an alleged drug addict and prostitute is still being discussed.
Mayor Judy Kennedy said the matter was "problematic to the city.
“This was a really dumb, stupid thing for our city manager to do”, Kennedy said. “Now I'm not making any accusation, I'm saying talk about image problems – that's a big image problem."
Councilman Cedric Brown said, according to a police report he had seen, Herbek had picked up the woman and escorted her to a "known drug spot," where she consorted with a young man and got back in the city manager's vehicle.
"You don't resign if you don't feel you did something wrong," Brown said.
He said he wanted to hire a new city manager not because of the incident, but because Herbek had submitted a "garbage budget" for 2013, and could not work successfully under the two percent tax cap mandate.
Councilman Curlie Dillard said he believed aspects of Herbek's story did not add up, and that the police involved had done an inadequate job, calling it "preferential treatment."
"I cannot accept his explanation, nor [Herbek] being city manager for another day”, said Dillard. “I suggest we begin looking for another city manager tomorrow".
Police Chief Michael Ferrara said the circumstances were abnormal but that protocol had been followed in reporting what transpired in the blotter. He confirmed the woman seen with Herbek had been arrested in the recent past for prostitution.
"They did the proper thing; they reported what they saw. It was a high-ranking city official in a precarious position out in the public; it was unusual," Ferrara said.
Herbek read from a statement reiterating that he had known the woman for some time and had been trying to admit her into a methadone or detoxification program. The city manager told Mayor Kennedy over the weekend that he would resign from his position, then redacted it Monday morning.
From his statement: "By resigning, I would be abandoning those people; our dedicated staff; three years of our very best efforts; and every positive stride this City has made under my leadership, leaving the City subject to seeing all our efforts unravel. It would be easy to resign; it is hard to stay. It is easy to be a coward and it is hard to stand here and face you. But I do so today, full of resolve," he read.
Herbek, who took over as city manager in 2009, said his need to "fix broken things" helped save the city from the brink of bankruptcy, and caused him to try to help the young woman for fear she could "die on the streets."
"In retrospect, maybe I should have backed away and declined to help because of who she appeared to be. I knew who she was but I tried to help anyway," Herbek said.
Herbek saw an outpouring of support during the public comment session. Many residents in the full-to-bursting council chambers said it was not their business what the city manager did on his own time, and that since he was not arrested there was no wrong doing. More than one referred to (or quoted directly) the Gospel of John's account of Jesus Christ saving a prostitute from being stoned.
Mayor Kennedy added that Herbek was receiving too much credit for "righting the ship" in Newburgh over the past few years.
"From the talk that's going on here tonight you'd think this man walks on the water, that everything that has happened in this city has happened by him alone”, said Kennedy. “That's not true: we've hired consultants; we've hired specialists; we have had helped from the state…the comptroller from the state is on top of us every quarter."
The mayor said they would be looking into an independent investigation of the incident.