Rockingham, Bellows Falls boards issue reviews of town manager

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ROCKINGHAM >> The Bellows Falls Trustees and Select Board met June 14 to discuss several items, including a review of the official manager's evaluation, which caused sparks to fly in the meeting.

"I would like to exercise my right to have this discussion in open session," said Municipal Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns.

Select Board Chairman, Lamont "Monte" Barnett responded, "There is no such right."

At a Select Board meeting on May 24, Bellows Falls Trustee Colin James spoke up during the public comments section and asked the board what happened to $1,200 that was allocated for investigating the municipal manager, Stearns. Barnett responded that it was inappropriate to discuss a personnel matter. When Barnett was contacted by the Reformer, he noted the board approved the orders, bills and warrants as presented in open session during an April Select Board meeting.

Things got heated at a meeting on March 29, when a letter was read aloud at a Select Board meeting by Zoning/Planning Administrator Charles "Chuck" Wise, declaring support for Stearns. The letter was signed by 13 of the town's department heads, which led Barnett to state his disapproval of such a letter.

In a previous statement from Stearns, he said the letter of support stemmed from the March 1 organizational meeting with the Select Board. Without inviting Stearns, the board went into an executive session to discuss "personnel where premature general knowledge could place the municipality at a substantial disadvantage."

At the June 14, Joint Board meeting, Select Board member Peter Golec asked for an explanation as to why the manager was refused a review in an open session. Barnett stated that Stearns does not have that right and that an employee is not evaluated in open session. Barnett added that the board has the right to go into executive session to discuss it among itself. Stearns noted that Town Attorney Steve Ankuda was still in the building and asked if the board would like to check with him about the matter. Barnett stated no.

"I'm just not sure what the proper procedure is," stated Village President Myles Mickle.

Barnett reiterated that the board has the right to discuss the municipal manager in executive session without him present.

"The record will reflect that I have requested an open session and should you find out that it is in fact my right, then we'll see what goes from there," said Stearns.

Barnett called for a vote on the motion, with he, DiBernardo, Hearne and Stefan Golec voting in favor of going into executive session, with Peter Golec opposed. Village Trustee Steve Adams made the motion that the Bellows Falls Trustees also enter the executive session to review the manager. Stearns again stated that he wished for this to be reviewed in open session. Golec seconded the motion, which passed with Mickle, Adams, Golec and Weeks voting in favor with James opposed.

The Board went into executive session at 8:40 p.m. and came out at 9:50 p.m. No announcements were made.

"During the last executive session of the review of my review, they came out and didn't make any statements," said Stearns, on Friday. "I can tell you, after the training done by (attorney) Ray Massucco, in which he says out right clearly, if anyone comes out of exec session and says what was said, it's really unethical."

Stearns said there were at least five people who contacted him from one or both boards, telling him what was said in executive session and some attempted to reassure him. Stearns notes he wishes members would make such comments in a public session. He added that members told him they talked about process of review, who sets select board goals, but not about what was on the review.

After the Tueday meeting, Stearns said he couldn't sleep because the situation was "upsetting." He fell asleep around midnight, woke up at 3 a.m. and was back at his desk at 5 a.m. until 9 p.m.

"If you kick a mule it will balk, but if you kick a thorough bred horse it will run faster," Stearns told the Reformer, quoting his high school cross country coach, Rus Pickering, who he says has been a huge positive influence on his life.

The Select Board can go into executive session to discuss the evaluation of an employee and to discipline or dismiss an employee, according to Secretary of State Jim Condos. This law does not require that the Select Board enter executive session, but it gives the members that option. However, under state statutes, an employee being disciplined or dismissed does have a right to an open meeting. Therefore, if Stearns is going to be disciplined or dismissed, he can exercise his right for an open meeting.

The manager's review was discussed on Feb 16. One review document, which is public, rated Stearns' performance as unsatisfactory in work relationships with the boards as well as with citizens. The rest of the categories in the review were split between satisfactory and more than satisfactory, but no very high ratings were notated. Another review document showed four ratings of satisfactory, two in between satisfactory and more than satisfactory, six at more than satisfactory and one at very high.

"Continues to do a very good job with the management of the town finances/budget, equipment replacement schedule and management/oversight of major projects," noted one comment on the review. The unsatisfactory rating noted there are continuing issues with communication and verbal interactions with citizens and the board. "Need to work on being more diplomatic with people. While Chip's door is always open, many do not want to go up into town hall for a variety of reasons or cannot due to working hours," stated one of the comment.

Other concerns were around not sharing information with the board in a "timely" manner," and a need to separate his management from his friendships as well as stepping back a bit from "over-management of staff."

The Bellows Falls Trustees reviewed the Municipal Manager on March 8. One review showed one unsatisfactory rating for the sharing of knowledge with the boards and town employees. Two ratings fell under satisfactory, while 12 others were meets standards and then one rating of very high for "knowledge in current position."

The second review sheet showed three satisfactory ratings and ten ratings of mostly satisfactory. "In general the evaluation of the Manager is most satisfactory," stated the comments on the trustee's review. "He is highly intelligent and bring excellent skills to the job."

The review mentioned that Stearns has saved the village and town thousands of dollars each year in his management of the Finance Office. The comments also noted that the manager received very high ratings in his skill of keeping current on process and procedures that affect his responsibilities. Lastly, the comments section noted that certain members of the trustees are concerned about the manager's "public personna."

Overall the trustees evaluation praised Stearns for his "strong work ethic" and "excellent rapport with the staff he manages."

Stearns notes he feels the review of his review should have been addressed in public, during open session so they could have discussed why those two areas were "unsatisfactory." He also said he feels the ratings were based off one interaction he had with the public during a meeting held by The Chamber of Commerce and BFDA about construction in Rockingham. At that meeting Stearns said he was "berated" by everyone and was never asked about his side of the story by the Select Board or investigating attorney.

"My methods haven't changed, what has changed is the makeup of board and its presence when in public meeting," said Stearns.

The next Select Board meeting will be held Tuesday, June 21.

Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275


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