ROCKLAND, Maine — Rockland City Councilors maintain that the numerous personnel changes that have occurred during the past year were not the result of a concerted effort to clean house, but rather of a new direction in municipal government that some employees were not willing to support.
Since March when new City Manager James Chaousis came on board, the city has seen the departure of its longtime public works director, longtime finance director, veteran recreation director and longtime harbor master.
“The city has not had consistent leadership in the past years,” Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf said Wednesday in an email response to a question from the BDN about the reasons behind the significant number of personnel changes. “This lack of consistency places a strain on employees and the community. Any time new leadership is introduced it is embraced by some and scorned by others. That is just the nature of the human response. With new leadership comes change.”
The mayor said the city and the council were ready for change.
“Change can be very scary. Change is met with resistance or acceptance. Change is also necessary to move things forward. Without change stagnation occurs. The ‘same old, same old’ rears its ugly head,” the mayor said.
Councilor Valli Geiger agreed.
“There was a sense that after five to six years without strong consistent leadership, the city was floundering a bit and treading water rather than moving ahead. With incredibly tight budgets, the city has no choice but to seek an efficient, lean city government,” Geiger said.
“You have to crack some eggs to get omelets; we were looking for an omelet maker not a house cleaner,” she said.
Councilor Larry Pritchett said that all the changes in staffing since Chaousis began work as city manager need to be looked at individually.
“Many of the changes have grown out of Council directives to improve specific areas of city government and be responsive to residents’ concerns about the cost of city government. There was no directive [stated or implied] from the Council to the manager to ‘clean house,’” Pritchett said in a Jan. 13 email.
At an Oct. 22 meeting of the City Council to create a vision statement, however, individual councilors submitted a list of weaknesses that included criticism of the staff.
On Friday, the BDN received the individual statements by councilors used for that meeting. A review of those statements shows that MacLellan-Ruf listed “staff not all behind new leadership” as a weakness along with “staff accustomed to behaving independently from the [city manager]. Need an increase of team players.”
Chaousis disputed any contention that there was a directive to clean house. He said he was hired to do a job in a community that for too long has had too high a tax rate.
“We want professional integrity, fiscal responsibility and a better government in Rockland,” the manager said.
The manager also defended the personnel changes that have occurred during the past year.
The personnel changes began a little more than a month after the city manager started work in the city. Chaousis was hired in January but did not begin work until the first week of March. Greg Blackwell, the city’s longtime public works director resigned April 8.
Chaousis said Blackwell resigned after being informed that his position of public works director was being discontinued and that he would have to apply for the new, expanded position of public services director.
The council had voted in January 2015 to merge the public works and solid waste departments into a single agency.
“In my five years on the Council the former departments of public works and solid waste were the source of far and away the most community questions and complaints,” Pritchett said in an email.
In September, the city’s longtime finance director, Tom Luttrell, who twice served as interim city manager, accepted a job with Rockland Savings Bank.
Chaousis praised Luttrell’s work and said that Luttrell made the decision to leave for a higher-paying position. He said it was natural for a person who had been passed over for manager to want to take another job.
Also in September, the City Council gave final approval to an operating agreement with the Penobscot Bay YMCA to have that organization take over the city’s recreation department. That move eliminated some city positions, including that of Recreation Director Rene Dorr.
“While substantial improvements were made to the Community Building, utilization of the space did not increase and there was little change in programing,” Pritchett said of the recreation department. “Likewise the Council received no plan from rec department staff to either improve programing or improve revenue from programing at the facility.”
Pritchett said the transition appears to be going well.
During the Council’s Jan. 11 meeting, Councilor Will Clayton also praised the work done by the YMCA.
And harbor master Ed Glaser was at the center of turmoil during the past several months, culminating in his firing this month. The city manager said the harbor master violated city policies on the use of computers and worked to undermine the policies of the City Council and city manager.
The fate of the city’s longtime attorney Kevin Beal also is uncertain.
The council voted Wednesday night to hire Portland attorney Linda McGill to handle a personnel matter. The identity of the person being scrutinized has not been released, but multiple sources have said the manager has gone through the computer of the city attorney.
Also, in a Dec. 23 memo sent to the city attorney and council, Chaousis wrote, “Often, there is a disconnect between communications coming from the City Council, city manager, and the city attorney. This also appears to be a repeated pattern of behavior from the legal department in which the City Council has offered guidance. It does not appear that this guidance has had an effect.”
Beal has declined to comment about the issue.
Chaousis has said on multiple occasions that communications in the city need to improve and that city officials need to speak with one voice.
In October, when he hired Audra Caler-Bell as assistant city manager, he referred to improving communications.
“The city needs to communicate better. We have not done this better in my last six months, although there has been significant effort, but we will. This communication is multifaceted. It means department to department. It means internally, externally, to and from committees. Some of this will be from technological advancements that we are working on, but much of it will come from establishing policies and procedures on the flow of information. Every public employee and public official is an ambassador of the city, but if we don’t speak as one it just sounds like noise.”
His hiring of the assistant city manager created controversy over whether the manager had the authority to do so without first seeking approval from the City Council. To address that issue, councilors last month unanimously voted to create the assistant position.
The manager also has contracted with a human resources consultant, Laurie Bouchard of L. Bouchard and Associates LLC, to advise the city on some personnel issues. The city is paying the human resources consultant $150 per hour for on-site work and $75 per hour when she works remotely.
The mayor pointed out that job descriptions were better defined and that employee evaluations that had been put off have been completed.
“Have there been quite a few changes this year? Yes. Changes that put structures and expectations in place, not only for the city but the Council as well,” the mayor concluded.