2017-06-02 / Community

Handling of town manager hiring criticized

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Although Kennebunk selectmen claim to have received mountains of praise for hiring Michael Pardue to a three-year contract as town manager, their unanimous vote has found at least one vocal critic.

At the board’s May 23 meeting, budget board vice chairman John Costin said he did not fault the selection of Pardue, but the process by which the decision was made.

“I’m confident that Mike is eminently qualified to serve in that capacity,” Costin said. “I feel confident that everyone up there [on the selectboard] is a good person. I feel confident that you selected a good person for the town manager. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether we follow our rules of procedure, or whether we go with our guts [and say] ‘Let’s do this today.’”

Pardue, who has shepherded Kennebunk’s police, public works and human resources departments as a private consultant, was working as fullt-time human resources director last fall when he was tapped to fill in for outgoing town manager Barry Tibbetts.

The plan was for Pardue to step in when Tibbetts went out on medical leave in December. He would then stay on after Tibbetts returned in a consulting role through the end of his contract June 30. In October, selectmen signed Pardue to a one-year contract as manager through June 30, 2018.

The one-year contract was pitched by selectmen at the time as a means for the town to assure itself of a steady hand at the wheel while conducting a comprehensive search for a new manager, and Pardue’s contract specifically allowed him to step hack into the human resources job at the end of his term. Pardue was to lead the year-long search for his replacement, and a public process for the hiring was promised by selectmen.

But that plan changed when selectmen met in executive session to discuss Pardue’s contract, issueing a press release the next day announcing Pardue’s hiring to a longer term as a fait accompli.

At the May 23 meeting, Costin called selectmen to the carpet for the about face on the previously announced hiring process, but selectmen had an explanation.

“If you look at our enumerated powers in the town charter, one of them is to hire and fire the town manager, which we have done,” Christopher Cluff said.

Costin shot back, saying that, to him at least, Cluff’s response sounded like a canned reply.

“You clearly prepared for this, Chris,” he said, “because I’m sure you knew you were going to get ... ”

“I had a little bit of an inkling,” Cluff interrupted.

“ ... And you better be prepared,” Costin pressed on, without breaking stride, “because you’re going to get a pick-up truck full of it.

“I don’t care what you are legally entitled by the charter to do, you all sat here in this room and told the citizens of this town a timeline that would stretch from six to 12 months, that it would be a public process, that everyone would have an opportunity to provide public input,” Costin said. “What happened?”

“We had some concerns that we were going to lose a valuable candidate, potentially, or that we were going to face some unforeseen, we’ll call it distractions, if you will,” board chairman Dick Morin said, saying plans changed when selectmen came to realize they had the right man at the helm already, and could save the $50,000 they’d expected to spend on the a national search process.

“It was not until we started to get feedback from staff, from committee members, and from the public, of a positive nature, in support of him, that we started to talk more seriously with him as to staying on board,” Morin said.

“When did you discuss amongst yourselves the cost of a search?” Costin asked. When Morin said he and Cluff alone had discussed it — three selectmen would constitute a public meeting, under state law — Costin was incredulous.

“Just the two of you? And somehow that morphed into a decision of the board? I’m pretty sure, just from what you’ve said, that you’ve violated the public access laws,” Costin said.

“We made a decision after discussion,” Morin said, seeming to incite Costin even further.

“I have to be extremely candid here,” Costin said. “One of my gravest concerns about our prior town manager was a belief that under his leadership, this town had developed a political culture which is extremely contemptuous of policies, regulations and even laws.

“When you say to me we have the power to do what you said you were not going to do, stuff which is tinged around the edges, that violates, at the very least, good and fair practices of inclusion of the public, and you say, ‘We can do that. We are allowed to do that,’ I see the fruit of culture.”

That appeared to be the end of it, as Morin advised Costin his time to speak during the meeting’s public comment period had expired.

“By our agreement, we don’t respond to public comments. So, I just wanted people to know that’s why we were sitting here mute during that portion of our agenda,” Selectman Blake Baldwin said.

Baldwin then brought the issue back to the table following completion of the next agenda item.

“I was wondering at what time might we be able to respond to Mr. Costin’s comments?” he asked Morin. “Because I know in the past he has dropped his word bombs and then left, and has taken umbrage at the fact that we then later respond to him.”

Given the nod by Morin to have at it, Baldwin addressed Costin directly.

“There was quite a bit of emotion in your comments, John. I think all of us were taken aback by your vehemence,” he said. “I don’t really understand what your objection is as to the way we’ve done this.

“When you refer to the promises that we made that you allege we have breached, I’m not sure what you are referring to,” Baldwin said. “And, so, I deny that we have a culture tainted by scandal, lack of transparency, or any other words you have used to describe our work.”

At that point, other selectmen joined in.

“I am very confident in the vote for town manager,” Selectman Dan Boothby said. “I figure we could have gone for six months in a search and wouldn’t have found a candidate who was as qualified, or who I would have been as comfortable with. I thought it saved the town a lot of time, a lot of money, and it made our town more stable because of the quick vote, or the lack of a search, as you say.”

“I think you know my only concern, and that of everyone on this board, is the best interests of the people of this town. Period,” Selectman Ed Karytko said. “We felt we were doing absolutely the right thing for the people of this town.”

“Had this been an isolated incident, if this had not been, to me, another expression of the political culture of this town, which is expressed by, ‘What can we do?’ not, ‘What should we do?’ I would not be nearly so frustrated,” Costin said.

“Back on Oct. 18, we had a fairly in-depth conversation about what the process should look like, and how the public would be involved. And then to hook a U-ey out of sight of everyone — because what I’ve heard is that not a shred of this happened within the public view — then I don’t think I would be so upset,” Costin said.

“We didn’t do this in the darkness of night,” Morin said. “We followed policy and protocol. We have heard from a town attorney who we’ve trusted and who we pay a decent sum of money, and he tells us we’re doing a pretty good job, and we’re following the letter of the law. He’s the attorney we’ve paid for advice — you’re not.”

But Costin found no solace in that argument.

“You all really need to ask another lawyer other than Bill Dale to walk you though the Freedom of Access Act,” he said.

“Well, thus far, you’re the only person [from whom] we’ve heard, ‘Shame on you,’” Morin said.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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