The following chronicles Columbus City Administrator Tara Vasicek's tenure in York as its city administrator.
NOTE TO READERS: As city administrator, Tara Vasicek oversees activities in the city office and the departments that are in charge of utilities and services; as well as the day-to-day operations of the City while implementing all plans and policies under the direction of the Columbus City Council.
Recently, there has been some speculation, as well as unsubstantiated and untruthful claims made on social media, about her leadership, such as she “bankrupted the City of York” as its city administrator. For the record, THAT’S FALSE.
In this two-part series, we will address Vasicek’s tenure in York and her time in Columbus so far by talking with relevant parties who she worked for in York and currently works for in Columbus. We attribute information we receive from others, making crystal clear what information comes from which source. We avoid hyperbole and sensational conjecture that some choose to use to gain social media followers and attempt to divide the community. Truth and opinion are two different things.
Deliberately deceptive information is disinformation, FAKE NEWS. The truth has to be driven by facts. NO EXCUSES.
Former York Mayor Chuck Harris has no qualms in telling people to this day that Tara Vasicek stood out among the pack of city administrator candidates in mid-2013.
“I asked them all to not only send in their resume but to fill out a questionnaire and submit a video of themselves … Hers was the most impressive video,” Harris recalled of Vasicek, who first joined the City of York in April 2010 as a project manager within the York Public Works Department. “I always remember that.”
The York City Council in July 2013 unanimously voted to appoint Vasicek to city administrator and succeed the retiring Jack Vavra, making her the first woman to hold the position there. And by many accounts, she flourished in the role during her three-and-a-half-year tenure.
Under her leadership, the City of York was named Nebraska Community of the Year by the Nebraska Diplomats; the City received Economic Development Certified Community recertification status; a new ½ percent city sales tax was passed by voters that financed the new ball field complex, a quiet zone to offset train noise was instituted; Department of Environmental Quality compliance issues at the landfill were resolved; and the City’s property tax levy had been maintained to be one of the lowest in the state.
“Tara did a great job,” said Melanie Wilkinson, a longtime York resident who is the former managing editor of the York News-Times newspaper and covered the City of York for the media outlet before, during and after Vasicek’s tenure. “She came in after Jack, who was a seasoned vet, and was a wonderful administrator. She came in young, but vibrant and full of energy, equally as good as Jack was. … She made the transition flawlessly and did a great job for the City.”
But in January 2017, and following new mayor Orval Stahr being voted into office, Vasicek formally announced her resignation from the role in York to take on the same position in nearby Columbus. At the time, Vasicek cited her reasoning as “a progressive career offer I could not turn down.” Several York department heads soon followed suit and moved on to pursue new career opportunities, including the public works director and treasurer.
In 2018, Stahr and then-York City Administrator Joe Frei made public claims the City of York was now left in dire straits. Vasicek filed a formal Public Records Request in response to review the City of York’s 2017-2018 financial records. Vasicek said the City of York’s financial position was healthy when she left, citing the City’s records provided to her by York’s city clerk.
“The records prove that. I believe the situation in York currently is a combination of poor management and unrealistic expectations of municipal government in the budget, not an issue of previous years of management. I made the public records request to verify this,” Vasicek said at the time, according to the York-News Times. “At this time, the York City Clerk has verified that the general fund cash reserves are approximately $16 million, which is substantially similar to previous years …”
NUMBERS DON'T LIE - A look at York’s financial position, as maintained by the Nebraska Auditor of Public Accounts (ALL OF THIS IS PUBLIC INFORMATION)
FISCAL YEAR 2012-2013 2013-2014* 2014-2015 2015-2016 2016-2017 ** 2017-2018
ACTUAL NET BALANCE $19,438,854 $22,743,483 $18,114,587 $16,889,574 $18,423,725 $16,761,286
TOTAL BONDED $20,512,454 $22,178,983 $23,037,887 $20,688,178 $21,105,279 $19,493,740
* Denotes Vasicek's first budget in York
** Denotes Vasicek's last budget in York
That mayor was subsequently recalled from his position in a special election. He later passed away. Frei announced his plans to retire as city administrator in 2020.
So, was York left in dire shape? Was or did the York City Council have issues with Vasicek?
“No, that’s ridiculous. York is obviously in really good shape. Tara was not fired. We did have a lot of turnover after she left,” said current York Mayor Barry Redfern, who was the York City Council president during Vasicek’s tenure.
“We overdrew our checking account for a moment, but we were never broke. And it had nothing to do with Tara breaking the City of York. Anything about her breaking the City of York or being fired for such is not the truth. I thought it was unfortunate that some personal attacks against her were made at that time, but they didn’t come from myself or city council or people from the community …”
Wilkinson said she spent months pouring over the City’s financial audits dating back years and couldn’t find anything to back the claims suggesting York was struggling.
“There was no basis for it,” Wilkinson said. “I spent so much time – months and months - looking and never found anything wrong. I looked at length. She did not do anything wrong. She was one of the finest city administrators we ever had.”
Former York City Councilman and Council Vice President Ron Mogul, who is now on the Nebraska Public Power District Board of Directors, served four consecutive terms (16 years) on the Council, including during Vasicek’s tenure in York.
“The City Council was very sad to see her go. She absolutely did not bankrupt the City of York,” Mogul said.
Mogul said he loved seeing Vasicek come in young and grow over time, noting he was pleased to see she was learning while leading the City.
“City administrator is a thankless job – you’re not going to please everyone, but I think Tara walks that tightrope really well,” he said. “She can explain things very well, and I was always impressed she never played favorites. She treats everyone the same. She listens and doesn’t have a lot of knee-jerk reactions – she does the research.”
Margaret Brink served six consecutive terms beginning in 1992 on the York City Council and publicly spoke out with high praise for Vasicek in 2019. Today, she still thinks highly of her.
“She came in as a young woman with a young family, so she had some challenges in front of her at that point. As an older woman dealing with this younger person, I felt she was very honest with us, very direct and very assertive,” Brink recalled.
“She was willing to answer our questions. She really challenged us to do some projects and get going on some things, to make some corrections in what we were doing to make sure York was heading in a progressive headway.”
To this day, many who worked with Vasicek in York still have good things to say about her leadership for the community.
“I didn’t want her to leave … but it was an opportunity to go to Columbus, which is bigger. It was a step up in her career,” Redfern said. “If we were truly broke, we would not have been able to bounce back and do all the projects we’ve done. The numbers kind of speak for themselves. York is sitting in as good of shape as ever … I’ve seen her since and it’s been totally fine.”
Mogul looks back on working with Vasicek in York as a good experience.
“She did not leave us bankrupt. She moved us ahead,” Mogul said. “My experience with Tara was very positive. I think she has proven herself capable and knowledgeable, and I wish nothing but the best for her and her family. She was an asset to our community and I know she has to be for Columbus as well.”
Brink didn’t hold back in saying she wishes Vasicek had stayed in York, but that she’s proud to see her continuing to grow and lead.
“I appreciated working with her. I was sorry that she left, but I felt Columbus would be a very good opportunity for her to grow, learn and share her expertise,” Brink said. “I always favor women in leadership. I would have liked to work with her and see her grow in York, but I think she has done great in Columbus.”
Harris, who spent 26 years serving the City of York on the Council and 10 years as mayor, will always think highly of Vasicek. He said he told her upon her hiring to make the job her own and that she took the ball and ran with it.
“She was just phenomenal to work with. Tara handled people very well. She was a very good supervisor, very transparent,” Harris said. “She worked with everyone in the community… She just did a wonderful job of bringing people together.”
Part II, about Vasicek’s current role in Columbus, will publish next week.