The chairman of The Inquirer's parent company suggested Tuesday that the firing of editor William K. Marimow was not handled properly, saying such a major move would have needed the agreement of a two-member management committee of the board composed of owners George E. Norcross III and Lewis Katz.
"My position is that he should not have been terminated without the approval of both," said H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, an owner and chairman of Interstate General Media (IGM), which controls the newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, and the website Philly.com.
That requirement for agreement between Katz and Norcross, the two managing partners, is contained in the partnership agreement among the six principal owners, the philanthropist said in a brief interview, declining further comment.
Norcross, a businessman and South Jersey Democratic leader, and Katz, a businessman who was owner of the New Jersey Nets, have been at odds, particularly over the management of The Inquirer and IGM's digital news strategy.
"My understanding of the agreement and a legal opinion I have is that the publisher has the right to do this and the ownership doesn't interfere," publisher Robert J. Hall said in an interview late Tuesday.
Lenfest outlined his concern about the process in an e-mail to Hall on Monday, shortly after Marimow was fired.
"You and I have met on numerous occasions to discuss Bill Marimow's performance and each and every time you have told me that I had your full support in whatever decision I were to make," Hall responded in an e-mail, provided by a source close to the situation.
"The business decisions were made to revolutionize the newspaper but Marimow simply failed to follow those decisions," Hall wrote. "You have backed my authority up until now and I am surprised at your sudden turnabout."
Hall announced Monday that Marimow, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, had been fired over unspecified philosophical differences.
A seven-page memo Hall sent to the six owners of the company on the same day, obtained by The Inquirer, described what the publisher called "months of recalcitrance" from Marimow over staffing issues, coverage changes, and a redesign of the paper.
Hall's memo, outlining the reasons for his decision, accused Marimow of using an alliance with Katz to interfere with decisions that Hall said he was seeking to implement for the good of the company, in violation of a noninterference pledge the owners took when they assumed control in April 2012.
Katz and Norcross could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Most crucially, Marimow faced demands that he fire or demote six members of his newsroom leadership team, including two other winners of the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's top honor. Marimow refused to fire them.
"Marimow has many supporters in the region and his termination may well have serious and adverse repercussions for the newspaper," Lenfest wrote in his Monday e-mail to Hall.
"I am surprised and mystified at Bill Marimow's dismissal," former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in an interview Tuesday. "It would be like the Eagles firing a coach who's 8-2 - if any of us can remember when the Eagles were 8-2."
On Tuesday, Inquirer staffers began circulating a petition in the newsroom protesting the firing of Marimow, for presentation to the ownership and the public.
"Bill Marimow has led The Inquirer superbly," the petition says. "We find the criticism leveled at him now unclear and unconvincing." It says Marimow has been a "compassionate" newsroom leader who has upheld the paper's commitment to journalistic integrity and excellence "throughout buyouts, layoffs, a bankruptcy, and changes in ownership."
According to Hall's memo to the ownership group, Lenfest was present at a July meeting in which Hall and associate publisher Michael Lorenca warned Marimow that his job was in jeopardy if he did not implement changes they wanted.
"Lenfest then said that he unequivocally supported the termination of Marimow by Bob Hall if Marimow failed to comply with the corrective action plan," owner Joseph Buckelew wrote in an e-mail that was being sent to the entire IGM ownership group Tuesday. It was provided to The Inquirer by a source close to the matter.
Asked if two owners having a sharp difference of opinion on such a major decision could hurt IGM, Hall said in an interview, "I hope there is no problem for the company and I think I had the authority as publisher to make the decision."
Asked if he could imagine reconsidering the firing of Marimow, Hall responded, "No, it was the proper decision and I am very comfortable with it."