(Photo by Marjorie Strauss)
(Photo by Marjorie Strauss)

Back in November, the voters of Rockland signaled that they were fed up with the direction of City Hall when they defeated incumbent Mayor Frank Isganitis in favor of newcomer Bill Jillson by a vote of 528 to 476. Jillson ran on a platform that City Council was no longer responsive to the concerns of voters and went as far as to describe the local government as a “dictatorship.”

“I would like to see the city get back on track to where the citizens would like to see, not to where the council and the new city manager want to see it,” said Jillson at the time.

Jillson’s election came in the wake of the city’s decision to pursue negotiations with a company proposing to build a natural gas-fired cogeneration plant, during which time the city manager was seen by many to be actively promoting the proposal, rather than working on assessing the need for and feasibility of the proposal. 

A series of emails retrieved through a Freedom of Access request by the group Friends of Penobscot Bay included one which showed that Economic Development Director Audra Caler-Bell had used a template written by Evan Coleman of Clear Energy LLC to solicit support from neighboring towns for moving forward with negotiations. In an April 28 email, Coleman included talking points and instructed Caler-Bell to “slightly modify each letter so it does not look like a ‘form letter’” and that “the more personal and unique the letters are, the greater the support they have.… Our goal is to really just not have the letters look like we crafted them,” wrote Coleman. That day, Caler-Bell sent a draft to City Manager James Chaousis, noting that she had “tried to pull on the heart strings.”

After the council failed to garner enough votes to secure an option agreement with Coleman and Boston-based Energy Management Inc., Chaousis sent out a press release requesting that City Council “reconsider their decision,” adding that “commonly held opinions on political subjects are inversely related to voter’s passion and movement on those issues.” He said that was demonstrated by the number of people who showed up to oppose the option agreement and concluded his statement with a call to supporters: “If you don’t share the consensus opinion of participants last night, I want to know.” 

In a second vote on May 1, the City Council did vote 4-0 to enter into negotiations with the developer. 

Later, addressing postings on the “Rockland Concerned Residents” Facebook page that criticized inappropriate political influence on the part of city staffers, Chaousis argued that city staff had merely “answered the door” to those proposing the plant. “Please remember that there is a polar opposite opinion that exists in this community too,” he wrote. 

After a cascade of questions during last fall from Rockland residents, and no response, plan details, or follow-up from those who proposed the power plant, on January 14, City Council voted 3-2 to support a proposal put forth by Councilor Jillson for a six-month moratorium on grid-scale power generation facilities.

Shake-Up at City Hall

Last fall, on October 22, during a facilitated goal-setting workshop at the Rockland Public Library, members of a group that included Rockland city councilors and Chaousis expressed frustration with what they characterized as a “small group of local citizenry continually trying to disrupt progress with fear mongering that everything is a cover-up.”

During that October 22 workshop, members of the group blasted certain city employees for showing a “lack of professionalism” and being “very resistant to any type of change” as well as shouting, “being insubordinate,” refusing to accept city council decisions and going behind management’s back to council. 

The council decided to make city staffing concerns a priority five months earlier, shortly after Chaousis began, in appropriating $20,000 to hire an outside human resources consultant, Laurie Bourchard of Bourchard & Associates, to advise the city on personnel issues. 

Bourchard facilitated the October 22 workshop, which was intended to develop a positive vision statement for the city. The vision statement that came out of the workshop was later allowed to die, after it was met with withering public criticism once the disparaging comments made during the session about local activists, city employees and the press came to light.

Meanwhile, several veteran city employees have departed since City Manager Chaousis started work in March of last year. In April, Public Works Director Greg Blackwell resigned after the City Council eliminated his position. Longtime Finance Director Tom Luttrell, who also served as interim city manager twice, resigned in September to take a job at Rockland Savings Bank. Recreation Department Director Rene Dorr also left in September, after the City Council approved a measure to privatize operations of the Recreation Department. The city’s assessor, Dennis Reed, retired last fall, assistant code officer David Kalloch retired for health reasons and most recently code clerk Sonya Willis resigned. On October 2, Personnel Board member Carol Harris’ decision to resign from the board that evaluates applicants for positions also raised questions about the personnel turmoil in City Hall. 

“I take pride in having been a Human Resources professional for thirty years, and still make my living in the field,” wrote Harris in her brief resignation letter. “I will not risk my professional reputation through association with questionable Human Resources practices.”

Then on December 23, 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.” 

Councilor Bill Jillson later told the Courier-Gazette that Chaousis sent that memo after Attorney Beal helped Jillson draft the power plant moratorium.

Firing of the Harbormaster

On New Year’s Eve, just days after news broke of the city manager’s public censure by the International City/County Management Association for ethics violations, Chaousis seized the computers of City Attorney Kevin Beal and Harbormaster Ed Glaser as part of what was described as “an investigation” into employee conduct. It’s unknown if Chaousis was acting at the behest of City Councilors or what he found on the computers.

On Saturday, January 2, the Council held a rare emergency closed-door meeting, which lasted about three hours. The notice of the meeting, which was sent out on New Year’s Day, stated the purpose of the meeting was to discuss a personnel matter. On Monday, January 4, City Council held a second closed-door executive session meeting; notice of that meeting was dated December 31, with the purpose being to allow for “the discussion of personnel matters for evaluation of personnel.”

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.” Chaousis said he also found evidence that Glaser had viewed “pornography” on his office computer.

A three-member appeals board consisting of Rockland Personnel Board member Patricia Wotton, Code Enforcement Officer John Root, and city Finance Director Virginia Lindsey upheld the decision on January 20, but the vote tally was not disclosed. Back in May of last year, Glaser clashed with City Council over a proposal to raise harbor fees and was later put on paid leave. He was also suspended without pay last October for another dispute.

A “Clean House” Directive?

On January 8, in the weekly City Manager’s report, the Office of the Finance Director reported that there were “no significant financial issues” in the city’s general budget, but noted that “one area in which we have made large payments has been in the accrued benefits line. This line is used to pay outgoing personnel any accrued benefits they have at their time of departure. This line has been overdrawn, and there could be additional expenses in this area before year end.” 

On January 20 the Council met again in executive session “to discuss retention of legal representation regarding a personnel matter,” and then voted 5-0 to hire attorney Linda McGill, a labor and employment specialist with Portland-based Bernstein Shur law firm. 

(On Monday, February 1, City Attorney Kevin Beal’s attorney Daniel Nuzzi notified The Free Press that McGill had confirmed to him that Beal is not under some sort of investigation by the City Council or the City Manager. Nuzzi noted that it is important to make that clear because Beal, who has been the Rockland City Attorney since 2007,  is “a well-respected, highly skilled attorney who has served the City well through a number of changes in administration.”)

The departure of city employees over the past year led veteran reporter Steve Betts of the Bangor Daily News to question whether there was a specific directive from the City Council to “clean house.” In a January 13 email to Councilor Larry Pritchett, he noted that city government had undergone more changes last year than any single year during the past 34 years he had covered Rockland. 

Pritchett replied that the changes needed to be considered individually. He said that the most complaints he had received during his five years on the council were concerning the former Departments of Public Works and Solid Waste, which the council merged last year. He noted that the decision was made before Chaousis started the job and said the merger has saved money by sharing personnel and equipment. Both Pritchett and Councilor Clayton said that transferring operations of the Recreation Department to the YMCA has helped to increase utilization and improved recreation programming, which Pritchett said has been a long-term goal since 2010. 

“In short, 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,” wrote Pritchett. “There was no directive (stated or implied) from Council to the Manager to ‘Clean House’ as your [email] implies.”

Clayton said that it’s “not uncommon for any municipality to have turnover.… Despite what the anonymous postings online say, we’re not looking for a ‘hatchet’ man or someone to fire some workforce,” wrote Clayton in an email. “We were looking for someone who would be steadfast in moving the city forward. Someone that was able to hold people accountable whether it was hired contractors, the state or employees. There was and still is a considerable amount of positive momentum in this city and it’s being overshadowed by negativity.”

Old Grudges?

Second only to questions about the way the proposal for a natural gas-fired plant was handled, it is Harbormaster Glaser’s firing that has prompted the biggest uproar and recently sparked a petition drive calling for Chaousis’s removal, which is spearheaded by former city council candidate and longtime council critic Debby Atwell. Last week, in a response to a mass email from Atwell to which she attached several newspaper articles, most of which related to Chaousis’s previous employment in Livermore Falls, Mayor Louise MacLellan-Ruf fired back a public email to Atwell accusing her of having an “obsessive focus on the city manager.”

“You have expressed your outrage after a city employee was fired,” wrote MacLellan-Ruf. “A city employee [Glaser] who was accessing pornographic material and doing political partisan work on Rockland taxpayers’ dime. Most in the community are glad the City is holding staff to standards and expectations. It is unfortunate that you are comfortable with staff misusing City resources.”  

Former Councilor Lizzie Dickerson says she believes that MacLellan-Ruf has a hand in the recent turmoil at City Hall.

“I honestly believe that [Chaousis] was hired to shake things up,” said Dickerson by phone from Colorado. “One of the things that did really bother me was that she had an ax to grind personally with some of the people in the city of Rockland and I never really understood why because I knew Eddie personally, I worked with him for years. And whatever you think about however Eddie keeps house, he’s a little untidy and whatnot, but he did a damn good job of running the harbor and saved the city of Rockland a lot of money because of the way he did things and how personable he was.” 

In 2012, the Bangor Daily News reported that MacLellan-Ruf, then a member of the harbor commission, publicly chastised Glaser at a March 7 meeting for allegedly not properly communicating to the harbor commission about a meeting regarding the city’s port designation. According to the BDN, MacLellan-Ruf accused Glaser of “shady” and “unethical” behavior by allegedly putting his interests above those of the overall community. Glaser disagreed with MacLellan-Ruf’s accusations and then-Mayor Brian Harden reprimanded her for “overstepping the line of acceptable behavior.” 

 



Hiring a City Manager & Promoting the New Way

When Rockland City Council voted 3-1 in August 2014 to appropriate $17,000 to hire a consultant to recruit a manager, the city had experienced a revolving door of managers. In 2009, the council hired Rosemary Kulow, who only stayed for two years. The council then hired James Smith in February 2012, but he resigned in December 2013. Former Finance Director Tom Luttrell served as interim manager from 2011 to 2012 and from 2014 to 2015. When it came time to find a new city manager, both MacLellan-Ruf and Dickerson opposed spending $17,000 for the recruiter (Dickerson was not present when the 3-1 vote was taken). 

Dickerson said she was opposed to hiring a headhunter because they typically recruit either candidates heading for retirement or candidates looking to use the position as a stepping stone to bigger opportunities. Both types, she said, don’t generally stick around long. 

“They’re not someone who has been here forever and their whole heart and soul is in Rockland,” said Dickerson, and, she said, she would have preferred to hire Luttrell. 

Before the August 2014 vote to hire an outside recruiter, then-Councilor Eric Hebert acknowledged that Luttrell was interested in the position, but that it would be “a major disservice to the community” if he was simply hired without going through a competitive interview process because it would look like “the old boys network.” Hebert said although the $17,000 consulting fee looked like a lot of money, he believed the process would help the city find a manager candidate who was committed to a “long-term tenure.”

In the end, the Council eventually decided to hire recruiter Rick Dacri of Kennebunk-based Dacri & Associates. In notes to the council, Pritchett highlighted a blog post Dacri wrote about how to deal with an “entitlement mentality” among employees based on seniority by moving to a “performance-based culture.” 

“Merit always trumps longevity,” wrote Dacri in his blog post. “Hiring the external candidate was the first step in the process and it sent a loud message to all.”

Dacri noted that “cultural change is never easy and it is often painful.” He described a model new manager as a “take-charge leader who was committed to setting a new tone and direction. With an uncompromising approach and support from his board, he knew he had to be an exemplar — modeling and promoting the ‘new way.’”

“While it may be difficult to change behaviors and attitudes once they become the norm, strong leadership can make it happen,” wrote Dacri. “The effectiveness of town government, in an era of high resident expectations on bare-bones budgets, rests on the shoulders of its leadership and workforce. Understanding your culture is critical. Changing it, if it is not consistent with your strategic direction, is paramount.”

Following the August 26 vote to hire Dacri, Pritchett wrote that the turnover of recent city managers had “cost the city in productivity, staff morale and missed opportunities.” He said that a “a third misstep by the city would have a long-term adverse impact.”

In the job posting that fall, in 2014, Dacri wrote that the ideal city manager candidate would have “strong finance, operations, labor and management skills; experience as a town or city manager; and the ability to work effectively and with transparency with elected officials, citizen groups, employees and the legislature.” He wrote that the right candidate should have five years of “progressive municipal leadership experience” and possess a bachelor’s degree in business or public administration, but a master’s degree was preferred.

In November 2014, Councilor Will Clayton was appointed chair of the city manager search committee, which consisted of the then-members of the city council — Clayton, Frank Isganitis, Larry Pritchett, Louise McClellan-Ruf, and newly elected Valli Geiger — as well as outgoing Councilor Eric Hebert. At that time, Pritchett said Dacri had recommended six candidates out of 100 he had spoken to about the position. From there, the committee narrowed it down to two finalists, and the council unanimously voted to hire Chaousis in January for $92,000 a year. 

Chaousis had nearly seven years of experience as a town manager, for one and a half years in Livermore Falls and five years in Boothbay. 

On the day after Chaousis began work on March 1, Pritchett wrote about Chaousis’s experience “leading a team of 200 Marines responsible for maintaining some of the military’s largest and most advanced helicopters” that required “very hands-on work with complicated mechanical, computer and electronics systems.”

In May of 2009, when Chaousis was chosen out of 32 applicants to be the Livermore Falls town manager, Chairwoman Louise Chabo said in the Lewiston Sun Journal that though Chaousis didn’t have a degree or town manager experience, “he does have a lot of good management experience in the military.” Chaousis was a hometown fellow — having graduated from high school in Livermore Falls —  and then left to serve in the Marines from 1995 to 2001, as a sergeant and crew chief of a helicopter maintenance shop in Hawaii.

About the same time that Chaousis was hired at Livermore Falls, the Wausau Paper Co. announced the closure of the local paper mill, effectively raising the property taxes to 29 mils. 

“We made some really tough decisions and we ended taxes below last year’s tax rate,” said Chaousis. “I felt like that was a lot of hard work. I’m glad that I was there with my whole community to get them through it.”

But his tenure was not without controversy. On June 7, 2010, a number of residents 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.

“I was shocked by his anger,” said Ron Chadwick, according to the June 11, 2010, article.

After speaking to Chaousis, police reportedly said the manager said he wanted to drop the issue, but some of the residents wanted them to investigate the outburst. “I don’t appreciate being called a thief,” Richard Korhonen told the Lewiston Sun Journal. “It is a defamation of character. It hurt and pissed me off.… I’m not going to drop it.”

Chaousis later publicly apologized for his conduct, citing lack of sleep and the recent birth of his daughter, and the Lewiston Sun Journal (LSJ) praised him in an editorial for the apology. However, the police referred the complaint to the Androscoggin County DA Norman Croteau, who in September declined to prosecute the case because, as a state trooper told the paper, the “actions did not rise to the criminal level.” 

On September 24, LSJ reported that Chaousis had suspended Police Chief Ernest Steward Jr., who had been the chief for  20 years, as a result of a disagreement that was not disclosed. Chaousis disputes that it was a suspension and maintains that he put the chief on a “special project.” The newspaper reported that Steward had hired an attorney, but Steward, who is still the police chief, would not comment to The Free Press on the matter. 

Clayton said the Rockland City Council was aware of the incidents in Livermore Falls when they hired Chaousis. 

A month after the police chief’s suspension or reassignment, Chaousis announced that he had taken the city manager position in Boothbay for $60,000 a year. In his resignation letter, the LSJ reported that Chaousis had been concerned that his Livermore Falls position was in jeopardy following the budget process in July after a resident made a motion at a town meeting to only give him a 2 percent raise, rather than an 18 percent raise, up to $53,000. Chaousis said he had pushed to cut $500,000 out of the budget to make up for the loss of the mill, but some residents were upset about the promised raise. Former Selectman Tom DuBois was quoted in the LSJ at the time as stating that Chaousis had a strong work ethic and deserved to be rewarded for it. 

Boothbay

Chaousis had strong unanimous support from the selectmen during his five-year tenure in Boothbay, though it ebbed somewhat toward the end. The Boothbay Register reported that on July 24, 2013, Selectman Chuck Cunningham, who was previously a strong supporter of the town manager, voted against renewing Chaousis’s 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. 

Then in June 2015, after Chaousis was working in Rockland, the Boothbay Selectmen demanded reimbursement to the town’s account for his wife’s and daughter’s cell phone bills between 2011 and March of 2015. Chaousis told the Bangor Daily News that he had made a mistake by inadvertently co-mingling his private expenses on the town account and that he had charged some town items to his own personal account, for which he was not going to request reimbursement. 

“The Boothbay selectmen have their own political reasoning to request reimbursement in this manner,” Chaousis told the BDN. “Since there is no nefarious intent in this mistake I will simply comply with their request. The financial system in Boothbay was a disaster when they hired me. I’m glad the checks and balances system I created identified a mistake. It demonstrates progress.”

In the May 28, 2015, letter to Chaousis, Selectman Dale Harmon told the former town manager that he had been one of his “biggest fans and supporters” when Chaousis worked for the town and that he served the town “admirably.” 

“To learn of these charges, which appear to be more than an inadvertent one-time deal, was a huge disappointment to me,” wrote Harmon. “I know my fellow Board members share this sense of disappointment.”

Then on December 28, 2015, the International City/County Management Association, a professional association for municipal managers, issued a press release announcing that it had publicly censured Chaousis for using public funds for private purposes during his tenure as Boothbay’s town manager and then willfully concealed the information from Boothbay officials in order to avoid jeopardizing his upcoming employment in Rockland.  

In an October 7, 2015, letter to Chaousis, ICMA Ethics and Form of Government Program Manager Jared Dailey wrote that ICMA’s Committee on Professional Conduct determined that “it was only after Boothbay conducted its own due diligence and sought reimbursement” from Chaousis six months after he had discovered the payments that he finally discussed the matter with Boothbay officials and agreed to reimburse the town. The ICMA Executive Board later voted to publicly censure Chaousis for conduct that violated Tenets 2, 3, and 12 of the ICMA Code of Ethics.

“In reaching its recommendation, the CPC concluded that you willingly failed in your professional and ethical responsibility to be forthcoming about this matter and to take timely corrective action,” wrote Dailey. “The time to resolve the matter was immediately upon learning about it regardless of the potential negative effects it might have had [on] your relationships with Boothbay and Rockland. You instead placed personal concerns above your ethical duty to be honest and transparent.”

The City Council has not responded publicly to the censure by ICMA. When asked this week if any action has been taken or is planned, MacLellan-Ruf said that “the matter has been addressed and we are moving forward.”

Calls for a Positive Vision

“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,” began the draft of Rockland’s shelved vision statement. “At the same time, positive changes have taken place with workplace culture among City employees. Through a focus on continuous improvement and creativity, we have improved our efficiency and reduced our need to outsource work, by investing in staff development and fostering an entrepreneurial/ownership spirit among all department managers. Employee satisfaction is at an all-time high.”

Last October, Chaousis cited a need to “position the City in a positive light” when he announced the “promotion” of former Community & Economic Development Director Audra Caler-Bell to the position of assistant city manager, which includes public relations in the position’s “essential duties and responsibilities.” 

“The city needs to communicate better,” said Chaousis. “We have not done this better in my last six months, although there has been significant effort, but we will.”

Chaousis outlined a plan that would require the city to “speak with one voice” by controlling the flow of information and having all communications between city employees and the press go through the executive office. The creation of a new position caused controversy due to a statute that requires council approval first. The Council later gave retroactive approval for the decision. 

In September the city also approved an $18,000 contract with Tourmaline Inc. to redevelop the city’s website to improve communication and transparency.

“Based on last year’s process, the discussion needs to be improved to prevent poor information from diverting the conversation,” said Chaouis at the time. “The city website should become the central point of information rather than news media, which is topic specific.”

The city manager has also recently hired the services of Naretiv, a Camden-based public image consultant specializing in “branding, messaging, PR, design, social media, crisis management, and interview prep.” According to its website, the company says it has “deep expertise in personal branding.” 

But questions remain about whether City Council and the manager simply have a “PR problem” due to a few negative rabble rousers, some change-resistant staff, and an adversarial local press, as they have often contended, or whether the source of these particular tumultuous times at City Hall is rooted in the current conduct of its public officials.

The next installment in City Hall’s reliance on outside consultants is set for 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feburary 11, when the council continues its series of closed-door executive sessions and meets once again with its $300-an-hour outside counsel.