Manager to boycott executive session meeting
By Citizen Chronicle Writers
SOUTHBRIDGE — Historically, the outgoing Town Council sat on its hands between election day and the seating of the next Town Council. This June has been different, and it has led to consternation over the future of the town manager.
Town elections had been held on the final Tuesday of the month of June, leaving little room for an outgoing Town Council, School Committee, or any other elected board to maneuver midnight appointments or last-minute actions after voters had had their say at the ballot boxes. That officially changed last year when elections were moved to the second Tuesday of June.
“We decided to move the local election for several different reasons” Town Clerk Madaline I. Bonadies explained on Wednesday. “The main reason is because by being so late in the month, it’s vacation time for many people and people are not around. Later in June school is out and people are in summer mode and not thinking about elections. Also, with the election being so close to the end of the fiscal year, doing payroll for all the election workers was rushed.”
Since the local election on June 12, there have been 10 meetings of the Town Council and/or its subcommittees scheduled. That total does not include the regular Town Council meeting held the night before the election, nor the Special Town Council meeting that preceded it earlier that evening. Additional meetings may still be scheduled in the coming days before the current Council cedes power to the next one at the end of the month.
Town Councilor Kristen Auclair, re-elected to a three-year term last week, voiced her concerns with these meetings.
“The length of this lame duck period is a fairly recent development, and the special meetings that have been called are unprecedented in number and scope,” Auclair said Wednesday. “Town officials should never be afforded the position to act on their personal agenda without recourse or accountability from the people they were elected to serve.”
Councilor-elect Jack Jovan said Wednesday he had hoped the town manager’s contract wouldn’t be an issue the next Town Council had to take the time to address, but noted he has experience in negotiations from his service in other positions, including serving as chairman of the School Committee.
“I would have hoped that they had the contract issue settled before we came in because the three of us are new and we’ll be behind the eight ball,” Jovan explained. “It would be nice to have had this settled. The people who are in office now know more about his performance to evaluate. Having said that, I could learn quickly and jump in. I’ve done contract negotiations in the past.”
There are four meetings slated for Wednesday evening, none of which are expected to be broadcast live on local cable access, and one that includes an executive session pursuant to the contract of Town Manager Ron San Angelo.
The round of meetings begins at 5 p.m. in the Rice Conference Room at Town Hall with a joint meeting of the Education and Human Services Subcommittee and the Town Council to discuss the replacement of street side fencing, followed by a joint meeting with Town Council and Planning and the Development Subcommittee to review independent peer review services for a special permit/site plan near Dresser Hill and a traffic study review at Case Street. At 6:30 p.m., the Town Council moves upstairs to Town Council Chambers for a joint meeting with the Planning Board for a presentation of the second draft of the zoning bylaw update.
The evening’s fourth and final meeting is posted as a “special” Town Council meeting in the George Parent Community Room, adjacent to Town Council Chambers. That meeting is slated for an 8 p.m. start but the legal posting includes the caveat of being able to begin as soon as the Town Council’s joint meeting with the Planning Board concludes. The special meeting will be almost entirely conducted in executive session with closed doors to “discuss strategy and conduct bargaining with non-union personnel (Town Manager contract) … and return [to] open session.” Upon returning to open session, the final agenda item before adjournment is to vote on executive session motions.
San Angelo emailed members of the Town Council that he will not attend Wednesday night’s meeting, instead opting to wait until the new Town Council is seated in July. In an informal meeting with him on Tuesday, the town manager alleged, Council Chairwoman Denise Clemence and Vice Chairman Gus Steeves “stated that since I was not going to negotiate with the existing Town Council that I was rejecting the new Contract that was developed by the current Town Council. That is their statement, not mine. I want all Town Councilors to be clear that my position is. I have not rejected or accepted any proposal. I appreciate the current Town Council proposal, but since a new Town Council will be in place in July, I am going to wait and discuss this issue with them. It seems unfair to the 1/3 of the Town Council members that are new and would not have an opportunity to decide if they would want to work with me over the next three years.”
Clemence notified the Town Council via email on Tuesday evening that Wednesday night’s “special meeting will still be held as posted.” She did not return a call from The Citizen Chronicle Wednesday seeking comment on the matter.
Councilor-elect David Adams expressed hope that actions in the final days of the current Town Council’s control will not harm the town or lead to a vacancy in the town manager’s office.
“It’s a relationship that’s not cohesive. I’m really hoping the new Council has an opportunity to work with Ron and negotiate a new contract,” Adams said. “I don’t want to walk into a situation where we don’t have a town manager. I don’t think that’s what’s best for the town.”
VOTE NOT TO RENEW CONTRACT FAILED LAST YEAR
Speculation has run rampant through several Town Council meetings that some are seeking to oust San Angelo from the town manager’s office. San Angelo signed on as Southbridge Town Manager in June 2015, and there has been a great deal of uncertainty regarding his future after a July 24, 2017 meeting of the Town Council in which Clemence, as chairwoman, placed an agenda item asking for a vote to provide written notice that San Angelo’s contract would not be renewed. At the time, Clemence asserted her intent was to negotiate a new contract with the town manager rather than sever ties with San Angelo. “I am not personally seeking the firing of this Town Manager,” she said at the time.
She also distributed “Talking Points on Existing Town Manager Employment Agreement” to members of the Town Council before the motion failed by a 6-3 vote with Councilors Clemence, DiPietro, and Manna casting the votes to not renew the town manager’s contract. As the non-renewal notice was not approved by the Town Council, a clause in the town manager’s contract automatically extended his employment with the Town until August 2019.
“It is our responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure that the contract is vetted and is good for everybody, not just comfortable for everybody, but good for everybody,” Clemence said at the July 2017 meeting. Clemence, who had been appointed by the Town Council to lead negotiation efforts with San Angelo when he had been hired, listed off seven sections of the contract in which she had “concerns.”
At the July 2017 meeting, San Angelo said the process had “been embarrassing” for him and was no longer comfortable in his position before asserting the Town Council should simply non-renew his contract and he would begin searching for a similar position in other communities. Since that meeting, San Angelo has stated he would be open to remaining in Southbridge depending on the situation at the end of his current contract.
Auclair said Wednesday the town manager’s future should be in the hands of the incoming Town Council rather than the outgoing panel. Doing so, she said, “provides a fair opportunity to the three new councilors-elect to make a decision that will affect their entire term on this Council.”