Board OKs Pownal town admin dismissal

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POWNAL — After an about-two-hour executive session post-termination hearing on Monday, the Select Board unanimously affirmed a decision it made last month to terminate Town Administrator Michael Walker.

All five board members signed a statement, read by Board Chairman Bryan Harris in open session, that lists the reasons for Walker's termination as: misleading the board and withholding information; aggressive and threatening behavior in the workplace; derogatory language regarding citizens, other town officials and staff; retaliation against subordinate staff and elected town officials and disclosure of privileged information. The board voted to have the statement posted on the town website. and sent to the Banner.

Walker did not attend the meeting Monday nor any other hearings associated with the termination process. He could not be reached by press time Monday.

The board unanimously voted to terminate Walker on Nov. 18; his post-termination hearing had been scheduled for last Friday, but it was changed to Monday due to scheduling conflicts.

"For me personally, it was a very difficult decision," Harris said after the meeting. "I personally do not take termination lightly, regardless of what the circumstances are. This wasn't a spur-of-the moment, reactionary decision."

Other board members agreed.

"I took this extremely personal, and it really did pang me," said board member Marlena Pellon. "But the evidence that was presented to us was just so overwhelming, so overwhelming."

The evidence presented was "in black and white," she said.

The town cannot legally disclose that information, Harris said.

When asked when the board would hire a new town administrator, Harris said that would be a topic for another meeting, and the board still has to decide whether it would like to hire someone for the position.

"We should definitely get going on it, but we haven't made that decision yet," Pellon said. "Let's not forget that the voters voted for the position."

"But you can also put another ballot article out, and warn the voters of the dangers of the position," replied Bob Jarvis, after which Harris said the board needed to wait to discuss the issue at another meeting.

Before the board went into executive session, town attorney Robert Fisher, of Fisher & Fisher Law Offices of Brattleboro, explained that the town personnel policy requires both pre-termination and post-termination hearings.

The intent of this post-termination hearing, he said, is for the board to listen to evidence, and in public session, affirm its previous choice or revoke it, or make some other decision.

At the request of Jarvis, Fisher clarified that it is up to the employee in question to make a post-termination hearing public, not the town.

After the hearing, Harris said Walker has not been town administrator since the board first voted to terminate him on Nov. 18, although he was paid until the end of that week.

The board also invited witnesses into its executive session meeting. Town Agent Rebecca Dragon, whom the board voted to appoint last month, was also present.

Asked by members of the public at last Thursday's board meeting about how the board would replace Walker, Harris avoided committing publicly to a hiring timeline.

"It's my understanding that Mr. Walker is no longer employed by the town of Pownal," said Karen Gallese, addressing the board at that meeting. "I want to remind you that the voters of Pownal approved a town administrator."

Harris replied that that the board could not make any decisions until "the procedure for what's going on" is finished.

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 on Nov. 1 by Harris, who had been authorized by the board during an Oct. 22 special meeting to administer disciplinary action on behalf of the board concerning all employees and appointed town positions.

Monday marked the first day the board has commented publicly on the reasons for Walker's termination or administrative leave; it had previously maintained it could not legally discuss such issues at the time.

In a letter to the Banner published last month, Harris said any issue involving personnel or disciplinary issues is not public, and the board has been assured by the town attorney that it is working within the law.

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


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