Pownal Select Board votes unanimously to terminate town administrator
POWNAL — Following an executive session on Monday, the Select Board voted unanimously to terminate Town Administrator Michael Walker, and scheduled his post-termination hearing for Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m.
Board members said they could not comment on the reason or reasons for the termination.
"With regret and sadness, I say aye," said board member Marlena Pellon as she voted.
The termination goes into effect after the post-termination hearing; the specific time will be determined with help from the town lawyer. Walker did not attend Monday's session.
He could not be reached by press time Monday night.
Walker became the town's first administrator in July 2018, following the creation of the position through a town meeting vote in 2017.
He was placed on paid administrative leave by Board Chairman Bryan Harris on Nov. 1 for reasons the board has not publicly disclosed.
When asked if the board had a plan to hire a new town administrator, Harris said that "[Walker] is still actively employed as the town administrator, so nothing is going to happen now."
"Hope you're all ready to be crucified," Harris said after the meeting.
He said the board is legally not allowed to comment on the reasons for termination at this time. "It's still an active, ongoing process," he said.
"This was not a decision that was brought about lightly," Harris said. "I never find it easy to do something like this."
"No matter what the situation is," added Harry Percey Jr., clerk of the board.
Percey said that as soon as the board can, it will be making a public statement.
That is, if it can make a public statement, Harris added.
"It is what it is," he said. "It's what we got elected for."
The board also voted to use the newly-appointed town agent, Rebecca Dragon, as liaison in the personnel matter involving the town administrator.
Board member Bob Jarvis said the town agent, as a function, serves as a liaison between the town and any legal entity, for any legal proceedings of the town. Dragon takes direction from the Select Board, Harris said.
"We all work full-time jobs, so if the lawyer needs to get a clarification on something" he can contact the agent, who can then contact the board, Harris said.
"I had mentioned I really wanted to wait until Thursday to have that discussion," Pellon said before the vote on Dragon. The board has a special meeting scheduled for Thursday, with a posted agenda of an FY21 budget work session with the transfer station supervisor.
"I don't want to lose time on it," Jarvis said.
The board voted three in favor, with Pellon abstaining and Harris voting no.
Harris said he also wanted time for further discussion, "but time is pressing, I understand that."
Jarvis said the board should still ask Dragon to come in, as he wants people to be comfortable with the decision.
At another executive session last Friday, board members had failed to reach a clear decision concerning Walker's future as town administrator, but voted to continue him on paid administrative leave.
Prior to the closed portion of that meeting, board members acknowledged that any vote taken afterward in open session should be announced to the public.
Earlier last Friday, Walker said he responded in writing to a job evaluation report by the board, which he said was given to him when he was notified on Nov. 1 that he was being placed on paid administrative leave. He said that, based on the advice of his legal firm, he would not comment on the evaluation report or other complaints cited by the board prior to any decision on his job status. Walker also did not attend the session last Friday.
A recent unsigned notice from the board in a Pownal Newsletter edition referred in part to "aggressive, threatening, and intimidating behavior directed towards some of our staff," but it was unclear which town office officials or staff members were involved.
Walker has said he has heard no allegations of criminal conduct, adding that in his job he doesn't handle any town money.
He said the board's criticism of him was all related to the administrator's job.
During the regular board meeting last Thursday, members of the public expressed confusion and frustration regarding the unexplained administrative leave for Walker. Harris began the public comment portion of Thursday's 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 board could not comment on personnel or legal matters.
Harris also asked that questions about the matter be submitted to the board in writing.
Karen Gallese, who was a member of the search committee for the town administrator position, described her time on the search committee 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."
At last Thursday's meeting, 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.
"Do you plan on making these letters public?" she asked.
"You know, if I was Michael Walker, I wouldn't want to return to this job as town administrator," Gallese later 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."
At last Thursday's meeting, 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 the need arises.
"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 at last Thursday's meeting 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."
Reporting by Jim Therrien was used in this story.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118
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