2017-07-14 / Front Page

Tension flares over hiring process

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Following a heated exchange at the close of the June 27 board of selectmen meeting in Kennebunk, which was at least explosive enough to warrant calling police to town hall, the board will formally address concerns over the mechanics behind the hiring of Town Manager Michael Pardue.

At board meetings going back to May 23, John Costin, vice-chairman of the town’s budget board, has faulted selectmen for not following the process laid out when Pardue was tapped last fall to replace former Barry Tibbetts.

At that time, Pardue, who has shepherded Kennebunk’s police, public works and human resources departments as a private consultant, was working as full-time human resources director. The plan was for Pardue to step in when Tibbetts went on medical leave in December. When Tibbetts returned, he would act 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 back into the HR job at the end of his term. Pardue was to lead the year-long search for his replacement, and public participation in that process was promised by selectmen.

Following a special meeting in executive session on May 16, selectmen signed Pardue to a three-year contract, through June 30, 2020. Costin has since turned to the town’s hiring and personnel policies to say that not only did selectmen go back on their stated word from last fall on how a new manager would be selected, they violated the letter of the law in doing so.

“Policy spells out extremely clearly, in no uncertain terms, that the hiring process requires an open, advertised interview process,” Costin said at the June 27 board meeting.

“Were selectmen aware of that policy before they decided not to follow it?” Costin asked.

“Well, that’s a matter of opinion whether it was followed or not,” board Chairman Dick Morin said.

Pressed by Costin, Morin said the board was “of course” aware of the hiring policy, but he declined to be baited into saying selectmen purposefully chose to waive it.

“We’re not going to sit here and debate it. You can make your comments and then you can sit down,” he said.

The balance of the board remained quiet as Costin attempted to bring them into the conversation

“I’m profoundly disappointed that none of you will even admit to the fact that you violated the town’s written policy which is available for anyone to see,” Costin said.

“I appreciate your comments,” Morin said. “We got the best guy we could possibly get, and you know what, if you want to sit here and rail about it, your time is up.”

Costin stressed that he did not mean to question Pardue’s qualifications, or suitability for the job. His only concern, he said, was that the board changed course on the public participation process it had promised, and did not so advise the taxpayers until Pardue’s hiring was announced as a fait accompli.

Newly-elected school board member Rachel Phipps, Costin’s spouse, got up next to say that “several people” had expressed concern to the couple about the hiring process for Pardue in the wake of Costin’s complaints.

“It takes a lot of nerve to come up here and say something like that when you get treated like John just did at this podium,” she said. “I’m kind of frankly shocked at what just happened.”

Phipps said she has “nothing but respect” for Pardue, but said Kennebunk “has an incredibly male-dominated town management.”

Morin also called time at the podium on Phipps, with the exchange significant enough that her brother, Daniel Phipps, while watching at home on television, made a quick trip to town hall while the board meeting was still in progress.

Following the meeting, Phipps confronted Morin about his handling of the meeting, and comments made to her and Costin. During the exchange at least one “F-bomb” was dropped by Morin – a fact he acknowledged in an apology email sent to Costin and Phipps the next day.

“At that point I had not even stood up yet, I was still packing up my bag to go, and I had these three people leaning across the table over me,” Morin explained in a June 29 interview. “I won’t say I felt intimidated, but I did respond in a strong manner, to say, in essence, get out of my face, that was inappropriate.

“I am not meaning to stifle public participation at our meetings, not at all. In fact I encourage it,” Morin said. “The reason I limited John’s time is because it was his second bite at that particular apple so to speak. But we’re still left with this issue, being John’s dislike of our handling of the manager’s hiring.

“John’s complaint is that we have not followed our process, yet he won’t follow the process for bringing conflicts before the board, which is to bring them to the town manager and ask that they be put on our agenda,” Morin said.

In separate interviews, Morin and Costin agreed that no one was touched during the verbal confrontation, while both pleaded ignorance on the subject of who called the police. Police Chief Robert MacKenzie said he also could not say who placed the call, as no crime was committed and no report filed.

Since then, Costin has requested the issue get a formal hearing by the board, and it was scheduled for the July 11 agenda. That meeting took place after the deadline for this week’s Post.

Costin contends that, in addition to not adhering to the public participation that was promised, or the search process required in policy, selectmen violated Maine’s Freedom of Access Act law by discussing behind closed doors the proposal by Morin and Selectman Christopher Cluff to offer Pardue a longer contract.

Morin has said the board relied on the advice of town attorney William Dale on what it could discuss in executive session. He also has noted that since Pardue was hired as town manager, albeit on a short-term contract, and was never officially referred to as an interim manager, there was no vacancy that would have triggered the search process detail in the town’s hiring policies. All selectmen really did, he said, was agree to a contract extension with the sitting manager.

“What we ended up doing by extending Mike’s contract was save taxpayers the $50,000 or so a complete search process would have cost, which would almost certainly have resulted in us naming the same guy, because everyone agrees we already had the right man for the job,” Morin said.

“What still concerns me is the force with which I have been shouted down, with attempts to intimidate me to stop asking questions, and placing arbitrary limits on my right to speak,” Costin said. “I think if he [Morin] had good answers to the questions, he probably wouldn’t have been shouting.”

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

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