UPDATED: City Council refuses to investigate community development director's payoutFormer employee says city development agenda set back two years
Rockland — Rockland City Councilor Elizabeth Dickerson continued to argue Nov. 14 for a council investigation into the resignation of Community Development Director Audrey Lovering, but in the end just didn't have support from the rest of the council.
Other councilors argued Dickerson should have stayed for a closed-door meeting in which City Manager James Smith answered questions about the issue. The council voted her proposed investigation down 4-1.
Lovering's last day on the job was Oct. 1. She signed an agreement with the city as part of her resignation effective Oct. 10, saying she would not bring any claims against the city or its employees. As part of the agreement, she was paid four months salary as severance, totaling $21,667.
Dickerson contended that the council cannot have investigated the issue fully since they only heard one side of the story, and that side was from Smith, who served as Lovering's boss.
Councilor Will Clayton argued the other councilors who stayed for the executive session with Smith did due diligence and Dickerson chose to leave the meeting. He said the rest of the council has already spent three hours behind closed doors asking questions and getting answers on this issue.
"I will not support this," he said.
"You weren't supposed to know we had an executive session," Dickerson said to the public. "It was an illegal meeting."
She argued the council could not legally have a closed meeting to discuss an employee without having the employee present. Lovering was apparently not present for the executive session in question. Dickerson said she left the meeting out of concern that it was illegal.
"That was my best option," she said.
Councilor Larry Pritchett acknowledged that the meeting was heading in the direction of talking about issues that would make it an illegal executive session, but he said the meeting had not crossed the line by the time it was stopped.
Smith said the money for the payout could be absorbed as part of the city's operating budget without raising taxes.
Dickerson called that statement "borderline unconscionable." She said this was "hard, cold cash" and taxpayers' money.
"What we got was a gag order," she said.
Dickerson asked City Attorney Kevin Beal if the employee in question needs to be present if the council is going to discuss the employee. Beal said that would be the case for employees who answer directly to the council, which does not include Lovering.
Dickerson also indicated that part of the discussion in the closed meeting was about an employee's behavior at a particular public meeting.
Councilor Eric Hebert said people in the community want to know what happened in Lovering's case.
"The reality is, we just can't tell you," he said.
Mayor Brian Harden said the city council cannot interfere with the city manager in hiring or firing a city employee under his supervision. He said the Lovering issue came up between the two halves of the city manager's evaluation as an employee of the council, and the second half of the evaluation was postponed.
He said it was a crime to disclose information from an executive session.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, former Rockland Community Development Director Rodney Lynch said the loss of Lovering has set the city's economic development plans back by two years.
He urged the council to look to the future, saying neighboring communities including Thomaston, Camden and Belfast are aggressively pursuing economic development while Rockland is losing ground. He said that development is what pays the bills.
Lynch also said the payment for the settlement would be taken from the city's general fund, and argued since he's paying the settlement through taxes he has a right to know what happened.
Smith told the council an ad for a new development director will be posted next week. He said he hopes to fill the position by the end of the year.
At the same meeting, the council voted 4-1 to approve 2.5 percent pay increases for the city manager, city attorney and city clerk. That amounted to a $2,000 increase to Smith's pay. City officials noted this was offset by having city employees pay more into health insurance.
Dickerson cast the lone dissenting vote.
She said she was not comfortable giving the city manager a raise at all until the personnel matter was dealt with.
She also disagreed with the amount of the increase, arguing a true cost of living increase would be less and this was a negotiated raise. In arguing the point, she noted that many people in the community are struggling right now.
News Editor Daniel Dunkle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at @DanDunkle.