Pownal administrator Michael Walker facing termination; some claim he was 'sabotaged'
POWNAL — A number of residents say they're outraged over what they termed efforts by a few in town to undermine Town Administrator Michael Walker since his appointment in July 2018.
Walker is now on administrative leave, pending a "termination hearing" next week before the Select Board.
Board Chairman Bryan Harris notified Walker on Nov. 1 that he was being placed on paid leave indefinitely, but no reasons for the action were released.
Harris said he acted after the board authorized him during an Oct. 22 meeting to administer disciplinary action on behalf of the board concerning all employees and appointed town positions.
Walker confirmed Thursday that what he received was official notice of a termination hearing, which is scheduled for Nov. 15.
"I think the handwriting is on the wall," he added, believing he will likely be fired at the hearing.
"But I am going to fight it," Walker said. "I enjoy being town administrator. I like Pownal and I put my heart and soul into it. I certainly want to stay on."
Walker said he purchased a home in town after moving to Pownal in 2018, becoming the first to hold the new town administrator position.
Efforts to `sabotage'
Among those upset about the situation is Karen Gallese, who served on the town search committee that recommended Walker for the post. She named Select Board member Robert Jarvis — another member of that search committee — as someone initially opposed to the idea of a town administrator who later worked to undermine Walker's efforts.
"I was on search committee [including Bob Jarvis, Sue Caraman, Jenny Dewar and Ray Rodrigues] for town administrator," Gallese said this week. "I feel Bob Jarvis was trying to sabotage. After [Walker] was hired, I heard he was telling people in the community that something was wrong with the process. I sent him an email, saying he was attacking my credibility."
She added, "I think [Jarvis has] gone after Michael. I've had experiences with Michael, and they've all been positive. He's responsive, he gets back to me, and I just, I like the guy."
Asked to comment on the criticism, Jarvis responded Thursday in an email, saying, "I would prefer to limit my comments since the process is still on-going. I can say that I was on the hiring committee that recommended him. Mr. Walker was my first choice in reviewing all resumes, and remained my first after the interviews. I did come onto the board questioning the need for a town administrator, but was quickly convinced of the need after speaking with our town staff. And I voted to hire [Walker] as a Select Board member as my first choice of the final three candidates. I definitely had high hopes for his success when we hired him."
"It was clear from the beginning that Mr. Jarvis was against the town moving forward with a town administrator," said Dewar, a former Select Board and administrator search committee member.
She said Jarvis raised questions about the scheduling of committee meetings and about "the subjective process used to put this committee together," but he was overruled on those points.
Jarvis "then tried to dictate how the process would go via email to the hiring committee when, again, this was not his decision to make," Dewar said in an email. "We, as a committee with a chosen chair (who was ultimately Sue Caraman) got to decide how we were moving forward. We met and got the process going immediately."
After Walker was hired, Dewar said, "Mr. Jarvis started to micro-manage while the rest of the board was not really very good at giving Mr. Walker clear guidance .... Jarvis also jumped on a bandwagon with his buddies about a former work experience of Mr. Walker's. He felt Mr. Walker should have disclosed this when being interviewed and that there were issues in the hiring process as a result. But a) it was none of our business; b) it was not relevant; c) there was an [non-disclosure agreement] between Mr. Walker and the former employer. We had an executive session with the Select Board and the entire Hiring Committee, where [Jarvis] was essentially told to knock it off. It was a contentious meeting. Ultimately, we came out of the meeting and unanimously agreed to support the town administrator."
Gallese and others also cited periodic disputes and long-standing tensions between the several officials — most of whom are independently elected — who share space in the cramped Pownal Town Office on Center Street, which is scheduled to be replaced with a new town hall building.
"I was under the impression I got from watching a couple [televised board] meetings that those people in the town office have not been getting along for a long time," Gallese said. "I believe Michael was given the task of pulling them together."
Among officials sharing space are the Select Board's administrative assistant, the board of listers, the town treasurer and the town clerk, as well the part-time health officer and zoning administrator, who have files stored there.
"I am not surprised at the animosity in the town office," Caraman, a former Select Board member, said in a post on the Banner's Facebook page. "The Pownal Town office is, and has been for years, a very hostile environment. The staff were against a town administrator position from the start. In my opinion, anyone who accepted that position did not stand a chance."
Resident Amelia Silver said in an email, "I'm not sure I have much to add, other than that it appears that some of the members of the Pownal Select Board and some of the people employed by the town office are singularly unsophisticated and unsuited to manage the business of town government. There is nothing they don't confuse. Their treatment of Michael Walker has been unprofessional, hostile and I believe, actionable, from the outset of his tenure."
Walker said this week he has conferred with a law firm and was advised not to comment about his paid leave and termination hearing.
He added that his firm has conducted interviews with people in town in preparation for the hearing.
Contacted Thursday, Harris said via email that he could not comment on the situation.
Board issues statement
The board did, however, post an unsigned statement Monday in a Pownal Newsletter edition that alluded to difficulties at the town offices and said the board would be "taking steps" to deal with the situation.
"After much thought and consultation with legal staff, the Selectboard has decided to make a statement that aims to bring more information, transparency, and understanding to the public in regards to recent events and actions that have taken place in Pownal town government," according to the statement.
"As a board, we have been inundated with the exaggeration and escalations of what should be minor points of disagreement, misunderstanding, and needed communication that have been turned into personality conflicts and accusations. We, as members of the Selectboard, have identified multiple points of cause of this internal town government strife which we are sharing today."
The notice goes on to state that the board received multiple written complaints in July "regarding aggressive, threatening, and intimidating behavior directed towards some of our staff. To partially address the issues, the Selectboard made some temporary changes to work stations and assignments of town staff."
But afterward, according to the board's statement, "the back and forth internal allegations have escalated. The board is taking decisive action to put an end to this unacceptable behavior and to protect our town employees."
In October, the notice states, "there were inappropriate statements targeting staff members. We have deemed these statements to be personal attacks and the Selectboard will not tolerate such behavior at board meetings going forward."
The town "has had many strong personalities in the past and now is no exception," according to the statement. "However, our work environment must be productive, leaving personalities and personal conflicts behind. It is the board's intent, and indeed the board's job, to encourage and provide a healthy work environment. To this end, the board will be taking action necessary to promote a good and productive town government working environment."
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.
Voted in 2016
After discussing on and off for years the need for administrative help for the Select Board, the town created the position of administrator after a 2016 townwide vote to authorize the Select Board to hire an administrator or a town manager.
The board later decided that an administrator was best for Pownal.
Walker was hired in June 2018 at an annual salary of $65,000, with no benefits provided, over a three-year contract. He was hired to work at the direction of the five-member Select Board.
The job is an at-will position, meaning the board could remove the administrator before the end of the contract period through a majority vote.
Since the Oct. 22 vote of the board to designate Harris to discipline employees, it is unclear whether a vote of the board would be required to fire Walker.
Walker is retired from the Navy. He previously was president of Walker Public Safety Consultants, and also an adjunct professor of public administration, fire science and public health at Anna Maria College in Paxton, Massachusetts.
He has been a volunteer firefighter and instructor and a past fire chief of a town fire and rescue department, and has served in other communities as a fire and rescue squad member, officer or fire chief.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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