Pownal residents question board on Walker leave

Pre-termination hearing to be held behind closed doors tonight

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POWNAL — Two members of the public expressed confusion and frustration regarding the unexplained administrative leave of Town Administrator Michael Walker at a Select Board meeting Thursday night, and questioned the board about its decision to hold Walker's pre-termination meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today, in executive session.

Board Chairman Bryan Harris placed Walker, who has held the town administrator position since July 2018, on paid administrative leave on Friday, Nov. 1 for reasons the board has not publicly disclosed.

Harris began the public comment portion of Thursday's regular meeting by asking who was there to speak regarding Walker, and instructed them to "not attack or engage in rumor" and keep their comments "fact-based."

He added that the Select Board "cannot comment" on personnel or legal matters.

He also asked that questions about the matter be submitted to the board in writing.

"We can't comment on questions," he said.

Karen Gallese, who was a member of the five-person search committee for the town administrator position, asked the board about the pre-termination meeting regarding Walker. According to the meeting agenda, it is scheduled as an executive session.

"Have you taken it under consideration to make this meeting public?" Gallese said. "Because I think the townspeople need to know what is going on here."

Harris replied that the issue is a legal personnel matter.

"You, as a board, can decide to make it a public session," Gallese said. "That's what the [open meeting] statute says."

Board member Bob Jarvis said that the board is following the advice of the town attorney. Gallese asked for the attorney's name, and said she would call him.

Gallese also described how her time on the search committee for town administrator with four other community members, including Jarvis.

"I will tell you that on Aug. 23 of 2018, I had community members coming to me, telling me that Mr. Jarvis was making comments within the community that the process of the town administrator was compromised," she said.

She said she sent Jarvis an email, telling him he was incorrect, and defending herself.

She said she believes, and has some proof, that Jarvis was against hiring the town administrator.

"I have an email in which he said right before our first meeting, `I'm concerned about the subjective process used to put this committee together,'" she said. "In fact, he wanted to wait to come back to the Select Board and talk to them about the process."

"Without saying anything outside of the bounds, there was never a discussion among the board to eliminate the [town administrator] position," Jarvis said. "That's not at issue. Just to be clear about that."

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Gallese also referenced the town's forensic audit, which is currently underway.

"I am not here to point fingers," she said. "[At] any time, [did] Michael come to you with concerns regarding the process of handling town money, such as fees, taxes, overtime hours? Did Michael report back to you that he in fact questioned office staff, and did you support him? Did the board at any time support Michael through this process?"

Gallese said she understands the board also has in its possession letters of complaints in reference to town office staff.

"Does you plan on making these letters public?" she asked.

In an unsigned statement last week posted in a Pownal Newsletter edition, the board alluded to difficulties at the town offices and said the board would be "taking steps" to deal with the situation. In July, the board received multiple written complaints "regarding aggressive, threatening, and intimidating behavior directed towards some of our staff." Despite temporary changes to work stations and assignments, the internal allegations have escalated, and the board is "taking decisive action to put an end to this unacceptable behavior and to protect our town employees," according to the statement.

The statement does not mention the action taken regarding Walker or any other steps the board has taken to improve the work environment at the town offices.

"You know, if I was Michael Walker, I wouldn't want to return to this job as town administrator," Gallese said. "It is unfortunate because the town of Pownal needs a town administrator, and I would like to remind the board and the folks in attendance that it was the townspeople through their votes that wanted to hire a town administrator. I for one was excited about the position."

`Hornet's nest'

Gallese added that, "as far as I am concerned, Mr. Walker walked into a hornet's nest — a town hall staff who never had to answer to anyone and a dysfunctional board."

She asked the board what its plans are to quickly get another town administrator if Walker decides not to return to his position.

"I also want to remind you that Mr. Walker owns a home in Pownal, and you know, quite frankly, he could be running for your seats in a couple years," she said.

Gallese asked when the board would answer her questions.

"We as a board — that is a legal personnel matter that we cannot comment to at this time," Harris answered.

Dawn Rodrigues also briefly spoke to the board regarding Walker.

"I just want to say that I was astonished to hear this," she said. "I don't follow what's happening moment by moment, and I see the headlines in the newspaper and go to the swimming pool and everybody's saying, `oh, Pownal again.'"

She said Walker has been extremely supportive of the recreation activities in town.

"Michael has been helpful throughout the process, and I'm just astonished, and I have no idea what's gone on," she said. "The town has wanted to have this [administrator] position for so long I'm just expressing my sadness about it all, and my support for Michael."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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