Whittaker decision brings residents out to selectmen's meeting
January 19, 2010
NEW DURHAM — Residents crowded the new addition to the New Durham fire station Monday night to question selectmen and offer their opinions about the recent decision to lay off Town Administrator April Whittaker.
After a lengthy non-public session at the board's Jan. 4 meeting, Selectmen Terry Jarvis and David Bickford voted at 12:40 a.m. in favor of laying off Whittaker, and board Chairman Ron Gehl voted against the proposition.
"You pulled a quick one on us," resident (and former selectman) Peter Rhoades said to Bickford of the decision.
Rhoades said that Bickford gave the impression that he agreed to keep the administrator's pay rate the same when he voted in favor of it, after a lengthy discussion about the issue at the Jan. 4 meeting, where most residents in attendance praised Whittaker.
Selectmen did not raise a motion that specifically dealt with the administrator's pay at the meeting, but did unanimously approve of the Executive Office budget at $136,356, which included the administrator's compensation.
Bickford wrote in a statement that he read aloud that the decision to lay off Whittaker was due in part to the current economic climate, and was also based on a study conducted by the N.H. Local Government Center that determined Whittaker's pay exceeded the pay that administrator's make in towns similar to New Durham.
Bickford added that the reason why the compensation was taken up in a non-public session later on at the Jan. 4 meeting was because the discussion began to deal with the person and not the position. He also said that it was a "mutually agreed upon decision," which Whittaker had brought forward to selectmen, and that he would like to move forward.
"You lied," Rhoades exclaimed to Bickford, reiterating his feeling that Bickford gave the impression that he was OK with the administrator's pay when he voted in favor of the executive office budget. "You were very deceptive."
Rhoades added that he felt there was no cost savings in the decision, because Whittaker was given eight weeks of severance pay, while the town has to pay another person to temporarily fill her position. He said that they could have laid her off with an eight-week notice, whereby they would not be paying two different people at once.
Gehl informed the public that reducing the town administrator's salary was just one of several items that Whittaker brought to selectmen's attention, and that the Executive Office budget was still 6.6 percent lower than last year's with Whittaker's pay in it.
Resident Dave Curry, who serves as the chairman of the budget committee, said that New Durham is feeling the effects from the poor economy.
"We aren't doing so good," he said, adding the town is trying to level fund everything this year. "We don't have to balance the budget on the backs of employees."
Curry said that he is concerned with the chemistry between elected officials, especially since there will be at least one, if not two, new members on the board of selectmen in March. He added that making decisions as late into the night, as was made at Jan. 4 meeting to lay off Whittaker is too late for "anyone to think straight."
Many residents question selectmen's rationale behind approving the Executive Office budget when they knew they were going to revisit it later on in the meeting.
Jarvis said that she voted for the budget with the understanding that the lines would be revisited.
"I felt we needed to move on," she said, noting that the public input was becoming personal. "I felt it was time to move on so we could get the business of the night done."
"You knew you were deceiving the crowd," Rhoades told Jarvis, affirming his belief that some members of the board must have known what was going to transpire later on at the meeting when they voted in favor of the budget.
Bickford told Rhoades that selectmen don't normally conduct business with audience interaction.
"When are we going to get over the personal agendas and start doing what's right for New Durham?" asked resident Michael Davenport.
Davenport said that he has had a number of concerns with budget items and feels that selectmen are not handling everything as well as they should be.
Resident Katie Woods, who said that she has worked for the town for the past 15 years, said that the situation about laying off Whittaker is similar to the situation that arose when Whittaker's predecessor Bill Herman left some years ago.
"We've got to go on, and move on," Woods said.
Ed Neister, a resident of New Durham since 1970, said that he had a good working relationship with Herman, and a lukewarm one with Whittaker at most.
"I have always wondered for the last three years why she [Whittaker] is here," Neister said.
Gehl told Neister not to get into any type of hearsay about a person not present.
Resident Mary McHale, who said that she is suffering from the tough economy herself, said that she resents the fact that taxpayer money is being used towards the eight weeks severance pay package.
"If you have a problem with somebody have the guts and say 'you're fired' or have the guts and say 'you're gone,'" McHale said, noting that she did not always agree with Whittaker but thought she did her job well.
The lengthy citizen's forum session proved to be quite heated at times, with Gehl having to use his gavel to retain order.
Selectmen approved of a contract with Municipal Resources Inc. later on in the meeting that will bring Jeanie Forrester in as a part-time administrator until Town Meeting.
Gehl, whose resignation from the board was effective Tuesday, received praise from colleagues and members of the public alike.
"Please keep future residents in mind with whatever decision you make," Gehl said to his colleagues in a brief statement that he made at the beginning of the meeting.
In other business, the board revisited a number of budget items and selected Jarvis to fill the role as chairman in Gehl's absence.
The board's next meeting has been scheduled for Monday, Jan. 25, at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.