In government, bad news often comes on Friday afternoons, in hopes it will be lost in the weekend shuffle.
So it was telling that as the long Martin Luther King Jr. weekend began on Jan. 14, Mayor Dave Cieslewicz's office released economic development director Tim Cooley's resignation letter - a mere two weeks' notice.
Every City Hall employee knew the significance of Cooley's announcement: His two-year probationary period was ending in February, and he was leaving before the ax fell.
Cooley's departure is bad news on several counts. Most tellingly it revealed that, nearing his eighth year in office, the mayor has yet to put together a sustained jobs-growth strategy.
There was some good news last week, when it was announced that Madison's unemployment rate dropped to 4.4% in December from 5.3% a year ago. But overall, Madison's metropolitan employment is still down 14,600 jobs from its high point in August 2008, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy.
Another study, tracking manufacturing jobs over the last decade, found that the Madison area lost nearly a quarter of its good blue-collar jobs - 8,400 paychecks vanishing between 2000 and 2010.
Equally sobering is a recent analysis performed by Tom Hefty, a retired corporate executive, for the Wisconsin Innovation Network. Hefty found that the Madison area's job-creation record significantly outpaced Wisconsin's and the nation's between 1998 and 2008, but since then has slumped to their low level.
This is troubling. Madison has huge built-in economic advantages in a world-class university and a supersized cache of government workers. Yet our economic recovery seems stalled. Cooley's experience explains part of the problem.
Cooley, who was raised in Madison and worked in Silicon Valley development for several decades, had his difficulties adjusting to Madison' ritualized bureaucratic dance and to the intensely parochial focus of the city council members. He was impolitic, among other complaints.
In comments to the Wisconsin State Journal a year ago, powerful Ald. Tim Bruer warned that Cooley must "radically change his approach." His colleague, Ald. Satya Rhodes-Conway, groused that Cooley "doesn't understand Madison's culture." Some city staffers weren't enamored with him either.
But Cooley took on the difficult task of trying to simplify Madison's labyrinth-like development process. He spotlighted the disturbing fact that half of the property in the city is tax-exempt. He worked to have the city buy key properties like the Don Miller car lot and Union Corners so they can be resold to big-picture developers.
And his departure raises a concern that is increasingly heard around City Hall: Mayor Dave's decisive personnel moves have intimidated city staff and hurt their performance, while scaring away good applicants for top city jobs. (See "Soglin Blasts Cieslewicz's Management Style," 1/13/11.)
Begin with the long, arduous recruitment of a new planning chief. Multiple searches were conducted, finalists found and lost, and a headhunter hired to help. The mayor says the hiring took so long because he insisted on only interviewing exceptional candidates.
But this seems odd. Why wouldn't the best talent line up to work in a marvelous city like Madison, with its link to legendary planner John Nolen? Well, maybe the mayor would have had more exceptional finalists if the probationary clause were different.
"Who'd want to jeopardize a promising career in another city, uproot the family and move to Madison only to be out of a job in a couple of years based on the political whims of the mayor?" a skeptical city staffer asked.
I talked to one Milwaukee-area professional who considered applying for the planning job but didn't. Probation is common in top city jobs all over, he acknowledged, but Madison's two-year clause "sent a signal of 'Buyer beware!'"
Mayor Dave is having none of that. As the guy beholden to the voters, he says he properly directs city managers, including enforcing a two-year probation to determine if he and a new hire work well together. He's seen no evidence that candidate recruitment has been hurt, though clearly others do.
At issue is a fundamental clash of governmental visions. One is the reformist "good government" approach that says the professional work of city managers should be guided by the city's ordinances, policies and plans rather than the changing political calculations of the mayor's office.
The other vision, whose merits are championed just as strongly, is that top managers should work at the pleasure and direction of the democratically elected chief executive. It's deemed a question of accountability.
The city now has 26 managerial jobs subject to five-year appointments and two-year probations. As Cooley learned, this mayor isn't afraid to snap their leash. The problem is that the mayor's economic-development strategy has had none of this certainty.
The accountability issue is bound to arise again this summer when the city names a replacement for retiring comptroller Dean Brasser. The city's chief finance officer has long exercised a degree of autonomy because of the sensitivity of his work.
Here's the question: Does Madison want its new finance chief subject to the pressures of a mayor who could fire him or her for any reason - or no reason - for two years?
Marc Eisen is the former editor of Isthmus.