Councilors Reflect on City Manager & the “Culture of Secrecy”
Thursday, July 14, 2016 9:13 AM
Upon last month’s resignation of Rockland City Manager James Chaousis after a chaotic year at City Hall, it appeared that a dark cloud over the city had lifted. Chaousis’ brief reign was distinguished by his aggressive management style and outspoken views on politically controversial issues. His tenure was tainted by a public censure by a national municipal management association for ethics violations, but it was his high-profile feud with the city attorney and his decision to seize the computers of city employees and read their private emails that likely led to his ultimate downfall.
Rockland City Council and Attorney Kevin Beal (left) on Monday, July 11 (Photo By Andy O’Brien)
During his stormy, 15-month tenure a parade of city employees left the city, including two finance directors, the harbormaster, the city attorney, the public works director, the recreation director and the city assessor. Some retired, some resigned to take other jobs and others were either fired or had their positions eliminated. In the aftermath of the bloodbath, the city council must now begin the process all over again of hiring an interim city manager to take the reins until it can hire a permanent manager. Rockland has had seven city managers in seven years, including interim administrators. The council has also spent about $25,000 on legal services to deal with the recent turmoil.
During the past year, most members of the council repeatedly refused to discuss the management of the city during the upheaval, citing employee confidentiality. But their silence has also served to hide their own role in the manager’s controversial decisions. Recently elected Councilor Adam Ackor has expressed frustration with what he describes as a “culture of secrecy” surrounding the council’s actions and an excessive use of closed-door executive sessions. He noted that he’s already attended four executive sessions since his election just last month.
“As a citizen I despised the secrecy that was going on,” said Ackor. “I reject the idea that we should have executive sessions for anything other than what would be personnel issues of a nature that would require a person’s reputation to be maintained until such time as the facts are borne out. Once the facts are borne out, I think they should be made public.”
In the wake of Chaousis’ departure, several council members agreed to discuss their individual positions and details about how Rockland city government went off the rails. Councilor Will Clayton did not respond in time to be interviewed.
No Background Check, Minimal Vetting
According to a number of council members, the city’s problems can be traced back to the council’s decision in August 2014 to hire consultant Rick Dacri of Kennebunk-based Dacri & Associates for $17,000 to recruit a new manager. Then-Mayor Larry Pritchett, who is the only current member of the council that voted to hire Dacri, highlighted Dacri’s description of a model manager as being a “take-charge leader” with “an uncompromising approach” who was “committed to setting a new tone and direction.” In that respect, Chaousis certainly fit the bill, but when news later broke about his tumultuous tenures at Livermore Falls and Boothbay, many began to wonder how much the council had vetted him.
Dacri had recommended six candidates out of 100 he had spoken to about the position. From there, the city’s hiring committee narrowed it down to two finalists, and the council unanimously voted to hire Chaousis in January for $92,000 a year. At least two councilors say Chaousis was not their first choice. The employment agreement included a six-month probationary period in which the council had sole discretion to terminate the city manager’s employment, without severance pay.
According to the city, Chaousis provided no written letters or notes of reference and did not fill out an application. Dacri also did not do a criminal history background check even though several residents later turned up newspaper stories of a number of his mostly alcohol-related infractions during the early 2000s.
“I think that at any time we’re dealing with consultants, the assumption is that they are vetting the candidate for whatever the position is,” said Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf, who voted against hiring the recruiter. “So they are vetting references, backgrounds, work histories and that type of thing.”
Councilor Larry Pritchett said Dacri gave then-Mayor Frank Isganitis “the information to do the financial and criminal background checks” on Chaousis, which he said is what the Maine Municipal Association also does when helping towns recruit managers. However, a spokesman from the MMA said that the organization does in fact do background checks before presenting candidates to towns. Regardless, the report on Chaousis’ criminal history did not arrive until two weeks after he had been hired, say council members.
“You have to have the person’s permission to access some of that information, so it has to be fairly late in the process,” said Pritchett. “I think all of the council thought that ‘no news is good news.’ But then after Jim has moved his family here and is working, we get the information.”
Councilor Valli Geiger said she was shocked that the city didn’t do a background check before Chaousis was hired. “It seems like there’s a little network where [Dacri] was pushing a specific candidate,” she said, “and we should never have been surprised with a background check. We should have only had clean candidates for $17,000.”
A quick Internet search also revealed news articles that indicated Chaousis had some problems in Boothbay and Livermore Falls, where he had previously served. In June 2010, Chaousis publicly apologized to Livermore Falls residents after locals told the Lewiston Sun Journal that Chaousis came “flying out of the town office” and accused them of taking his wallet from his unlocked office. The following September, LSJ also reported that Chaousis had suspended the town police chief as a result of a disagreement that was not disclosed.
Although Chaousis had strong unanimous support from the Boothbay selectmen during his five-year tenure in Boothbay, The Boothbay Register reported that in 2013 a former supporter voted against renewing Chaousis’ contract for three more years, citing concerns about his performance. And in January 2015, according to newspaper reports, the selectboard was not unanimous in support of a contract extension and negotiations fell apart. Shortly after that, Chaousis signed the contract with Rockland.
Pritchett said he had asked people he knew in the Boothbay area about Chaousis and was aware of some of the controversies down there surrounding Chaousis’ tenure, but “it was hard to know what to do with that.”
Geiger said that she was concerned when the background check and stories from other towns began trickling in, but she said Chaousis’ explanation for his conduct — that he was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in the Marines — was a good explanation. She added that the hiring also put her in an uncomfortable position of not supporting the hiring, but also wanting to be supportive of a new city manager.
“I found it very frustrating to be part of a decision that wasn’t my decision, that I may not have voted for, but I am only one of five,” she said. “And then I spent the next year watching the results of what I felt was a bad decision in the first place play out. I don’t feel like it’s my place to say in public, ‘I told you so.’”
The Natural Gas Controversy
Chaousis did not have much of a honeymoon after he began work in March 2015. In addition to a bitter budget process, many Rockland residents first began sharpening their knives when a secretive natural gas plant proposal fell in the city’s lap in April. Then-Mayor Frank Isganitis called a closed-door council meeting with developers from Boston-based Energy Management Inc. on the proposal to build a $200 million natural gas-fired cogeneration plant at the site of city hall. But city residents were not notified of the project until just days before the council scrambled to vote on whether to enter into negotiations with the company because EMI claimed the council had to vote immediately in order to enable EMI to meet a PUC deadline.
Councilor Adam Ackor, who says he first became engaged with the workings of city council during the gas plant controversy, has been strongly critical of the secret meeting.
“Developers need to go through the same channels that every other potential business or property investor goes through,” said Ackor. “They can be in executive session with their real estate broker and then they come here and fill out a permit application and all of that. But we shouldn’t be meeting behind closed doors to facilitate any sort of thing like that.”
In retrospect, MacLellan-Ruf and Geiger agreed that it was wrong to hold an executive session with the developers. Pritchett said he opposed having the executive session from the beginning, but was in an awkward position because the rest of the council supported having one. Geiger said the mistake was largely because she was a new member and didn’t know any better.
The council initially voted down a move to enter into negotiations with aspiring developer Evan Coleman and EMI to build the plant on city property, but a series of emails later revealed that Chaousis directed city staff to use a template written by Coleman to solicit support from local businesses for moving forward with negotiations. None of the city council members interviewed said they were aware of the covert lobbying until the emails surfaced.
“Everybody thinks that once you’re on city council, you know everything,” said Geiger.
In a second vote on May 1, 2015, the city council did vote 4-0 to enter into negotiations with the developer. Throughout the summer, Chaousis also told members of the council and the press that the city had not had any interactions with Coleman or EMI over the gas plant. Geiger said she repeated Chaousis’ assertions at a public forum at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Rockland in September, but she said, she later found out that the city had been secretly meeting with the developers without her knowledge.
“And I went out in public and that made me into a liar. I was livid,” she said. “I thought I was telling the truth, and I found out that that was not the truth. And what [Chaousis] said to me was, ‘I had decided not to tell you guys because Larry would spread it around.’ I was like, ‘I don’t care. It’s not your call.’”
Misuse of Public Funds Controversy
Then in June 2015 the Boothbay Selectmen sent a letter demanding that Chaousis reimburse the town for $4,388 in public money that the town manager used to pay his wife’s and daughter’s cell phone bills between 2011 and March of 2015. At the time, Chaousis said he had made a mistake by inadvertently co-mingling his private expenses on the town account. In the May 28, 2015, letter to Chaousis, Boothbay Selectman Dale Harmon told the former town manager that he had been one of his “biggest fans and supporters” but “To learn of these charges, which appear to be more than an inadvertent one-time deal, was a huge disappointment to me.”
None of the council members responded publicly to the incident at the time, but behind the scenes, it turns out, a heated debate was happening. According to Geiger, she brought her concerns about the issue to former Mayor Frank Isganitis, who she said called Boothbay.
“We … took it to council and the rest of the council was really angry that we took it upon ourselves, and they voted to not go any farther,” she said. “Now I still don’t understand that decision. How do you not go to a town that just told you that the guy you just hired might be crooked? That was the decision, but you don’t have any power as an individual to do it yourself.”
She added that the council had the added weight of knowing that Chaousis was the seventh city manager and they didn’t want to end up looking for an eighth one just three months after they hired him.
Then on December 21, 2015, The Free Press acquired a letter from the Washington D.C.-based International City/County Management Association (ICMA) to an anonymous recipient indicating that it planned to publicly censure Chaousis for his conduct in Boothbay.
“The ethics complaint, for which you served as the complainant, involving Jim Chaousis, city manager, Rockland /former town manager, Boothbay, has come to a conclusion,” said the letter from Jared M. Dailey, ICMA’s program manager for Ethics and Form of Government.
ICMA reported that Chaousis “willfully concealed the information from Boothbay officials” in order to avoid jeopardizing his employment in Rockland. While ICMA acknowledged the letter’s authenticity, it urged The Free Press to wait until it issued a formal censure a week later. Chaousis later told The Free Press that he had self-reported the ethics lapse to the ICMA and wrote to city staff that “This is the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that no one is beyond those standards and that people are also fallible.” In 2015, ICMA reviewed a total of 19 ethics complaints: of those, nine were closed with no censures; five were resolved with private censures; and five, including the one involving Chaousis, resulted in public censure.
However, at the time, no one from city council publicly acknowledged the public censure. When asked in February if any action has been taken or was planned following the censure, MacLellan-Ruf said that “the matter has been addressed and we are moving forward.” However, Councilor Pritchett said that the censure matter was never dealt with by the council. When asked about the public censure this week, MacLellan-Ruf had a similar response.
“I’m a little concerned because we’re going back instead of moving forward,” she said. “I think we need to at some point shut the door … to say it’s done, what are we going to do differently and how are we going to move forward?”
Councilor Ackor was particularly critical of the council’s lack of response to the matter.
“The ICMA made their findings public,” he said. “When it’s out like that it should have been addressed in public,” he said. “There was a missed opportunity to come out and have a public conversation about that.”
The Battle with City Employees
Two days after The Free Press acquired the anonymous memo from ICMA, Chaousis issued an “administrative order” memo addressed to City Attorney Kevin Beal, in which Chaousis himself said, “Administration of the city has been tumultuous over the last 10 months since my appointment as the city manager.” Then, over the course of four pages, Chaousis highlighted his powers of authority and responsibility for every city employee and department, including the legal department, and issued numerous orders to Beal. The memo ended with “failure to follow through with this administrative order, without formal intervention by the City Council, may lead to disciplinary action.” On December 28, ICMA issued its formal public censure of Chaousis.
Then on New Year’s Eve Chaousis seized the computers of City Attorney Kevin Beal, Harbormaster Ed Glaser and wastewater treatment plant Director Terry Pinto, according to Councilor Valli Geiger, as part of what was described as “an investigation” into employee conduct. According to Pritchett and Geiger, they were given no notice that Chaousis was going to seize the computers.
“I’ve heard … that the computers were seized, that they were taken off-site, they were investigated, I heard personal email accounts were accessed, social media accounts were accessed,” said Ackor. “I find that frankly to be a violation of the law. I would think that that would be considered employee harassment, among other things.”
The council later held a series of lengthy closed-door meetings to discuss “personnel matters” and hired Attorney Linda McGill, a labor and employment specialist with Portland-based Bernstein Shur law firm. On January 8, Chaousis fired Glaser, just weeks before Glaser was scheduled to retire on February 1, on grounds that the harbormaster violated city policies regarding Internet and email use, “employee harassment” and “city council and city management directives.” Chaousis also alleged that Glaser “demonstrated lack of judgment regarding professional conduct and colluding with other public officials,” subverted Freedom of Access by using personal email and social media outlets to conduct city business, and “undermined City Manager and City Council policy decisions.”
Pritchett said he could not discuss details that became known in executive session, but says outside of executive session he witnessed evidence that Chaousis was spying on city employees.
“During the week of December 28, I went to the city manager’s office to talk, and during that conversation the cell phone is on the charging stand and it starts beeping,” said Pritchett. “And he says to me, ‘Oh, that’s the person searching the computers telling me that Ed and Kevin are chatting on Facebook.’”
Both MacLellan-Ruf and Geiger said they were unaware if the city paid for an outside contractor to search city computers, but Geiger said she had heard that the manager might have installed spyware on city computers. She said Chaousis presented some emails to city council, but she chose not to read Beal’s private emails. She said that while Chaousis had the legal authority to read Glaser’s emails, she argued that he did not have the right to read Beal’s emails because he was an employee of the city council, not the city manager.
“I think it was illegal and reprehensible,” said Geiger. “[Chaousis] had no business seizing [Beal’s] computer, no business looking at his business email or his private email. And I believe … that something gotten illegally, unethically or inappropriately cannot be used in any kind of disciplinary or in any other kind of action.”
Geiger said the council solicited three legal opinions on legality of searching Beal’s computer because she was unsatisfied with the first two. The third lawyer reportedly told the council that she “wouldn’t want to defend that.”
Mayor MacLellan-Ruf said she supported a policy that allows employers to search the computers of city employees. “Private emails are private emails, but that said, we all need to be careful about what we do put in our work emails,” she said. “If the company owns the computer then they own the content and so, for me, that’s a matter of being really conscientious about what you do on a computer or a city-owned computer.”
She added that “any emails that were accessed from an attorney’s email account” should be considered “privileged and confidential.” As for whether the city manager should have been let go earlier, Mayor MacLellan-Ruf would not respond directly, citing employee confidentiality.
“What’s in place are processes and procedures that we need to follow,” she said. “And we can’t speed things up and go from A and miss all of the other letters to Z because we just can’t, so we have to follow procedures, we have to follow process, we have to always be aware of legal.”
Geiger said she almost resigned in December following the incident, and she and former Councilor Bill Jillson wanted to fire Chaousis, but they were out-voted.
“It’s just not how you conduct yourself, but has it been very frustrating for me? Yeah,” said Geiger. “And do I have a fit on a regular basis in executive sessions? Yeah, I do. It’s a big deal to fire somebody. It’s a big deal to get everybody on board where what one person thinks is enough takes everybody else longer. In the end, we got to the right place. Would I have done it six months sooner? Sure. Bill [Jillson] and I were in the same place.”
The feud between Beal and Chaousis apparently festered for several months until Chaousis issued an ultimatum to the council, which essentially said, “fire him or fire me.” In his June 6th letter, Chaousis reiterated his claim that the council could only deal with the city attorney through the city manager and that the city manager was solely responsible for the direction and supervision of the city attorney. He said his analysis of the emails on the seized computers demonstrated “insubordinate, unethical, and illegal activities.”
The council responded with a joint communique that praised Beal and stated that Chaousis’ letter “was not solicited by the Council.” But a few days later, the council removed funding for the full-time attorney in the proposed budget and instead appropriated $130,000 for both legal services and the services of a city planner to assist in land use issues that are currently handled by the city attorney.
On June 21, Chaousis resigned effective June 30, explaining that his recent surgery to remove a brain tumor caused him to consider the toll his job had been taking on him.
On June 27, Beal announced his own resignation, citing his desire to return full-time to his primary residence in Portland.
Mayor MacLellan-Ruf and Councilor Geiger, who supported removing a full-time attorney from the budget, denied that the move was related to the feud with Chaousis. Geiger said she regretted losing Beal, but said the city needed the services of a planner and questioned the need for a full-time attorney. “It has been up for debate and discussion every year,” said MacLellan-Ruf. “It’s been unfortunate that that memo was released and for me that was a confidential personnel memo and should never, ever have been released.”
Current State of City Government’s Ability to Function
Council members interviewed disagreed on whether City Council and Rockland residents have a healthy relationship these days. Ackor and Pritchett say there’s a lot that needs to be improved. “I think that the relationship between the community and the council is really poor and really strained,” said Pritchett. “I think that the internal relationships on council are really strained.”
Ackor added that it was the “worst” he’s ever seen.
“When I came in, I felt that the tension was palpable,” he said. “Everybody was on edge and obviously we had reached a crescendo with the city manager. I felt like there was anxiety, even among most of the staff who I interact with … you could feel it. I agree completely that relationships on council are ‘interesting’ right now. It’s not necessarily a totally dysfunctional situation, but it’s not what I would characterize as productive either.”
Geiger said she still likes the current council, but “there are struggles.” She added that she’s nervous about the city not having a finance director and being generally short-staffed in the administration.
“I happen to think that our city government is functioning pretty well given the amount of resources it has,” she said. “I didn’t like Jim, I didn’t like his way, but I think the city employees by and large are a good group and I think they believe in what they’re doing.”
MacLellan-Ruf disputed the notion that relations between the city council and the community are strained.
“I think with the regular people that I’m meeting on a daily basis when I’m out and about, they’re very positive. They understand the hardship and what’s going on and how the community is moving forward despite itself,” she said. “We do have many, many people who are verbal about what they don’t like and that’s fine. We need to have that to balance out how things are moving forward and what is and what isn’t.”
As for the relations among the city council members?
“I think we have a team,” she said. “My job, my role as mayor is to make people tend to the task and if they don’t I absolutely will pull them up on it and say ‘nope, this is where we need to go to keep things flowing and to keep things civil.’ But it’s teamwork. I can’t throw off any of my teammates.”
MacLellan-Ruf added that “though some tend to look at all of the things that are not working in Rockland, I tend to look at everything that has been successful,” such as an improved snow removal process and the merger of the city’s public works department with its transfer station.
“I think physically if we even look at the CMCA opening, if we took a look at the Rockland Harbor trail, if we take a look at Jake Dowling, if we take a walk up Main Street you see how vibrant it is … so I’m again much more from a strengths perspective than from a deficit.”
All members of the council interviewed agreed that as they proceed with the process of hiring a new city manager, they will not support hiring another recruiter. MacLellan-Ruf said that she would like to also bring in the human resources expertise of the city’s personnel board for assistance.
“I think we can have a ‘yes/no/maybe’ pile and sort through it,” said MacLellan-Ruf. “And then we would hire the appropriate people to do the background checks and that sort of thing. That I would be willing to spend the money on, but not for a $17,000 head hunter.”
Pritchett said the council should write up another two-year work plan for the incoming city manager and then revisit it with “meaningful” yearly evaluations and quarterly performance check-ins. “And we haven’t done that, and I see that as a core failing in both Jim Chaousis and [former city manager] James Smith,” said Pritchett. “We either didn’t do them at all or we just did an annual evaluation or if we did the evaluation, it didn’t get written up. That to me is a big weakness.”
Ackor said the manager hiring committee should include more members of the community than just the council. “I would prefer to have more stakeholders involved and frankly ask realistic questions of the candidate and base those on some of our past troubles,” he said.
Geiger noted that the last two city managers were Marines, which might have colored their approach to administration. “I’m just aware that we’ve had two Marines and they have a certain hierarchical, top-down mentality. It’s just part of that training,” she said. “I think Rockland is just way too feisty a city to go with that. I just don’t think it works.”
But most of the members of the council have been less clear about whether the closed-door executive sessions have served mainly to protect the city employees or to conceal the controversial decisions of individual councilors from public scrutiny.
Focusing on only the “positive” had long been Chaousis’ vision for the city, which was reflected in his decision to create a “public relations officer” to “position the City in a positive light” and have the city “speak with one voice.” And it was also reflected in the council’s Orwellian vision statement drafted last year, which asserted that “By June 30, 2018, the City of Rockland will be known as a place where public officials, private citizens and the press work together, with optimism, trust and collaboration, to create and promote the region’s unique assets and quality of life.”
Ackor says it will be critical to change a certain kind of “paternal culture,” under the guise of “protecting all of these employees from the terrible press,” that developed between the council and former manager. The kind of culture that says, “We’re going to dictate that everybody close off, we’ll keep information tightly guarded and we’ll meter it out as we see fit,” said Ackor. “And we’re going to do this because we’re going to produce a positive image of the city. We only want people to hear the good things because if we can create that image then people will move here and developments will spread out. I just think that that’s fundamentally flawed.”