More than 80 people filled the meeting room at the Rockport Opera House Monday, May 9 to hear the Select Board discuss and act on a motion to reconsider an earlier decision that called for the town to not renew its contract with Town Manager Robert Peabody.

That decision, which was made April 11 after a surprise motion by board member Dale Landrith Jr., came under fire from residents because there had been no advance notice and no reasons given for the move.

Early in the May 9 meeting, during his town manager’s report, in which he updated board members on progress toward goals they articulated at a Sept. 8, 2010, workshop, Peabody said he expected the evening’s proceedings to be difficult.

“I appreciate the turnout,” he told the audience. “I want to thank those who have had kind words for me, whether they disagreed with me or agreed with me.” He said citizens’ attention to the issue showed their love for their town.

“I appreciate the work,” said Peabody. “What will be will be.”

Select Board Chairman William Chapman called for a motion to reconsider the April 11 decision, saying procedural rules called for that motion to be made by one of those who had voted in favor of the non-renewal.

Those board members were Landrith, Thomas Farley and Alexandra Fogel.

Landrith said that before making such a motion, he wanted the board to go into executive session with Town Attorney William Plouffe, in order to ensure that any further action was made according to correct legal process. The board agreed to Landrith’s motion and retreated to a nearby room with their attorney.

After a brief executive session, the board returned to the meeting room.

Landrith said he had done “considerable research” before making the April 11 motion, including consulting a lawyer, and thought he’d done things correctly.

“I was wrong,” said Landrith. He made a motion to reconsider the decision to not renew the town manager’s contract, but that motion did not receive a second.

Chapman opened the floor to discussion.

Citizens address Peabody and board performance

Roger Jones rose to say that he had served on the Select Board for several years and thought Peabody had done “a great job for the town.”

“It’s a very serious matter that came up all of a sudden,” said Jan Rosenbaum. He said the April 11 decision was made without any reasons given. “Mr. Landrith owes us an explanation,” he said.

Charles “Skip” Heald said he didn’t think anyone was trying to remove Peabody. Rather, he said, the board had decided to let the town manager’s contract end on schedule.

“They’re running the town like a business, which it should be,” said Heald. “Nobody told Mr. Peabody he was fired.”

Chris Shrum said other towns have three-year contracts with their managers.

“Mr. Peabody today listed a series of goals that you set and he’s accomplished those goals,” said Shrum. “I find it hard to believe you would not choose to extend the contract. The performance was met.”

Helen Shaw said she had served on the charter commission and worked on the section regarding the town manager’s contract and service. She said Article III of the charter was clear as to how a manager can be removed or suspended.

Edie Caldwell asked why the board did not just let the contract end, and said the board should create a formal procedure for future use. She asked that the board “do everything in your power [to see] that it not appear in the newspaper before you take someone’s livelihood away.”

“It’s my understanding that, under Maine statute, the presumption is that a contract is renewed,” Chapman said in response.

He explained that a previous board had used a more formal annual evaluation to review the town manager’s performance.

“When I was working in private industry, that’s the way it went every year,” said Chapman.

He said when Robert Nichols and Robert Duke were chairmen, the board had not done written evaluations or used a formal process.

The board will meet May 23 in a workshop session to discuss the creation of a formal evaluation for the town manager’s performance.

Peter Ralston said he supported Jones’ comments.

“I’ve been in the small community business for 27 years,” said Ralston. “I’ve seldom seen a town office operate as efficiently or as well as Rockport under Bob Peabody.”

Becky Graffam said she had reviewed the charter and thought the board only needed to give reasons for dismissal if they were suspending or removing the manager from office in the midst of a contract period.

She said there were issues in regard to how Peabody handled vendor contracts.

Sally Cook said that she had served on the Conservation Commission for many years and that, prior to Peabody’s tenure, “the town was in a shambles.”

“It was hard to get volunteers on committees,” said Cook. “Over the last years, with Bob, things have smoothed out. I think he has done a good job and I hope his contract is renewed.”

Board votes after two-hour deliberation

Following about a half-hour of comments from residents, the board entered a second executive session to discuss the renewal of the contract with Peabody and Plouffe.

Peabody was asked if he wanted the discussion to take place in public, as is his right, and said he would defer to the board’s will, and the board once again left to meet in an adjacent room.

That session lasted two hours, during which residents and others in the meeting room exchanged conversation.

When the board returned, Landrith informed the audience that no straw poll or possible motion had been made during the executive session.

Board member Tracy Murphy then made a motion to renew Peabody’s contract for one year, and Fogel seconded that motion.

Recalling the earlier remark, made by Shrum, in regard to Peabody’s accomplishment of goals set out by the board, Murphy said the town manager had met the performance standards set for him.

“When I look at somebody’s performance, I want to see what they were asked to do,” Murphy said. She said Peabody had met the goals set for him by the board.

“I think we have every reason to renew his contract,” she said.

A vote was taken, with Murphy, Chapman and Fogel voting in favor, and Landrith and Farley voting against renewal of Peabody’s contract. The motion passed to resounding applause from the audience.

About two-thirds of the audience left the meeting at that point, many of them lining up to shake Peabody’s hand as they passed.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by email at sauciello@villagesoup.com.