Council places support behind Hollar, Fraser
By Eric Blaisdell
STAFF WRITER | October 31,2013
MONTPELIER — The City Council in Montpelier has issued a statement of their “unanimous and unequivocal support” of the mayor and city manager in regards to the recent dust-up with the city’s planning director.
Planning Director Gwendolyn Hallsmith recently was involved in a controversy with Mayor John Hollar and City Manager William Fraser. Hallsmith accused Hollar, a registered lobbyist for banking interests in Vermont, of using his influence as mayor to keep her from speaking out about public banks, financial institutions run by a state. Both Hollar and Fraser denied the claim.
Council member Tom Golonka said the statement, issued Wednesday afternoon, was written over the course of Tuesday and Wednesday by contacting each council member individually for their thoughts. No special meeting was held.
The statement said the ethics of both Hollar and Fraser were above reproach. The council said it was dismayed by the allegations created by a partial disclosure of internal city documents.
“Aside from raising legitimate questions with the City Manager about conflicts between the Planning Director’s outside advocacy and her job responsibilities to the City, the Mayor has had no role whatsoever in this personnel matter,” the statement reads. “The Mayor, like the rest of the Council, recognizes that sole responsibility for staffing resides in the City Manager, as per the Charter, and takes no action to interfere in staff management.”
The statement goes on to say the unfounded allegations by Hallsmith are “intended to mask dysfunction within the Planning Department, and the distraction may jeopardize important and necessary projects.”
The City Council, according to the statement, has been concerned about the efficacy of the planning department for several years. It cited the 2011 report on city operations conducted by the independent Matrix Consulting Group, which said the planning department staff registered far lower employee morale than any other department, with a 55 percent positive response rate versus the citywide average of 84 percent. The study also included concern with initiatives originating within the planning department taking priority over stated council goals and objectives, according to the statement from the council.
In response to the statement, Hallsmith said it was unfortunate the council thinks it’s appropriate to comment on this type of situation to the press.
“Publicly elected and appointed officials should be evaluated by public transparency and public opinion. This is not true of city staff. There is a long history of protections afforded public employees, so that reputations are not destroyed by this type of political maneuvering,” Hallsmith said.
As for the Matrix report, she said it contained some “pretty serious errors” about the core functions of the department, as it was used to evaluate planning departments but completely missed her department’s community development functions.
“For the City Council to use this data the way they have in this letter, without affording me the opportunity of due process is, in my opinion, a violation of my rights as an employee,” Hallsmith said.
“Some City Councilors appear to enjoy blaming me for programs and policies they have created and enacted with their votes. I do not take on large projects or enact policies on my own. Everything I do is bound by state law and city policy. I have been working to follow these laws and policies — not in a rigid way, but in a way that respects their link to legitimate public process. If City Council does not like policies and programs of the city, it is their responsibility to change them.”
Hallsmith went on to cite a section of the city’s charter about non-interference by the city council, which states neither the council or its members, including the mayor, can dictate or attempt to dictate the appointment of any person to office or employment by the city manager.
According to the charter, “neither the city council nor any of its members shall collectively or individually give orders either publicly or privately to any department head or employee of the city under the jurisdiction of the city manager but shall deal solely through the city manager, except for purposes of inquiry.”