by Rick Langenberg:
Green Mountain Falls has taken a giant leap in steps to hire the first town manager in the community’s 100-plus-year history.
In addition, elected leaders have paved the way for Public Works Director Robert McArthur to assume the role as the head town boss for possibly the next five years.
However, the issue of a new town manager for GMF is still quite controversial and will become a big campaign topic during the forthcoming 2014 spring elections, when most seats are up for grabs. Plus, certain aspects of McArthur’s contract, such as the proposed severance package, if a future board and the manager part ways, and the length of the agreement, are raising a few questions. Town Attorney Lisa Tormoen Hickey expressed concerns that the town didn’t have sufficient funds to cover the severance requested in the contract and that the deal could hamstring a future board.
Despite a few lingering questions, the board of trustees by a series of 4-2 votes last week, approved the initial reading of an ordinance establishing the town manager position and agreed to give the job to McArthur at no extra cost to the town. McArthur, though, won’t become the official town manager until after Jan. 7, when details of his contract get resolved and the board finalizes the town manager ordinance.
“Let’s put the town manager in and let him do his job,” said Mayor Pro Tem Jane Newberry, who publicly represented McArthur in the contract negotiations, and proposed a 60-month employment contract.
“I don’t think we are going to find a better candidate,” said veteran trustee Mac Pitrone. “I have yet to hear a negative comment (about McArthur’s potential role as town manager.) We are recognizing an employee who has been very loyal.”
Similar comments were echoed by most trustees and residents who attended last week’s hearing.
The selection of McArthur followed a swell of public support. The town government has received more than 40 letters of endorsement for McArthur from residents and community leaders, such as City Clerk Chris Frandina and David Shaw, pastor of Church in the Wildwood. Most people cited the way McArthur revived the public works department, garnered many grants, responded to resident concerns and did numerous duties outside of his regular job. They contended he would be the perfect fit for the new town manager position.
“The position is a tricky one and it’s going to take someone who can, at times, fly by the seat of their pants and adlib,” said Trustee Howard Price in a letter. “This is something that Rob, as public works manager, has had to do many times.”
However, not everyone agreed with the plan to hire McArthur as the new town hall manager. “It is a gamble,” said long-time resident Dick Bratton. Bratton and a few critics of the idea have stressed the need to open the position up to a competitive hiring process. They also are worried that the new town manager ordinance is prompted by the trustees’ desire to hire a particular person.
Mayor Lorrie Worthey and Trustee Tyler Stevens cast the dissenting tallies and questioned why the board is making such a rash decision on the eve of a future election.
“Why does he need a title?” questioned Worthey, regarding the plan to have a joint public works and town manager. She said she supported accepting McArthur’s application for the position, but wanted to open the hiring process up to other candidates. “Why are we not accepting resumes from other applicants?” asked the mayor. “I am concerned we are not going to be here forever.”
Stevens agreed. He referred to the town manager hiring process proposed by most trustees as completely inappropriate. He noted that the current board only has six meetings remaining prior to the April elections, when three trustees and a mayoral position, will be decided.
But the “yeas” definitely won out during last week’s hearing. Frandina, speaking as a long-time resident, described the town manager idea as a much needed change. “I see this as a tremendous administrative tool,” said the clerk, who previously served as mayor. “There is nothing unusual (with the town manager plan). It is getting to be a very common tool.”
“Everyone seems to be in favor of the idea,” said resident Craig Peterson. Most residents and leaders also described the selection of McArthur as more of a promotion for an employee who has already done much more than his designated job duties. In addition, McArthur has obtained a considerable amount of money for the town and has been instrumental in providing improved services.
Contract still up in the air
However, when the board started discussing details of McArthur’s contract, much confusion reigned. The GMF attorney maintained that the board wasn’t in a position to approve a final contract, citing a few legal concerns. Newberry, who made it clear she was representing McArthur, sought to have a 60-month contract for the town manager, and a detailed severance package, such as paying him a year’s salary if he got terminated along with more compensation for additional years of service. She said a precedent had already been set when the town gave former marshal Tim Bradley a $12,000 severance for resigning.
Both Stevens and Worthey asked that the details be spelled out in writing. They wanted to also see copies of similar contracts from other cities. According to government sources from other nearby municipalities, a 60-month employment contract for a first-time city manager is quite unusual.
The GMF attorney threw the trustees a curve ball, when she told the board that it must have the money in its budget to cover a potential severance package. And currently, she said it had a little more than $30,000, which is well short of what the town is proposing in its potential severance arrangement. “It could really rock the stability of the town,” said Stevens, when expressing concerns about certain details of the contract.
In a compromise move, Newberry said the board would consider a several year employment contract instead of a 60-month pact, but she didn’t want to delay the process any longer.