BRUNSWICK — A sharply divided Town Council on Monday night engaged in a war of words before voting 5-4 to immediately remove Town Manager Gary Brown from office.
Finance Director John Eldridge was named interim town manager in an 8-1 vote, with Councilor Gerald Favreau opposed.
Brown’s departure comes seven weeks earlier than his originally planned departure date of March 31, and more than a month after at-large Councilor Benet Pols, who on Monday proposed the early departure, was elected council chairman.
Pols last week gave Brown the option to resign before the meeting, which was legally permissible, according to Town Attorney Stephen Langsdorf.
The council officially gave Brown two weeks notice to depart by Feb. 24, but under terms his Dec. 23, 2013 resignation agreement, elected to pay him in lieu of working those two weeks. He will also receive a severance package of more than $54,000.
That means Monday was effectively Brown’s last day on the job, ending a nearly seven-year tenure in Brunswick. He was hired as assistant town manager in May 2007 and promoted to town manager in January 2009.
Brown and Councilor Suzan Wilson, who was chairwoman last year, said the council was seeking a “new direction” when his resignation was announced last year.
The proponents of that “new direction” became more apparent Monday night, with Pols, Vice Chairwoman Sarah Brayman, and Councilors John Perreault, Jane Millett and Steve Walker supporting the early departure.
“I want to acknowledge that you have every right that you’ve expressed under the agreement that we negotiated between myself and Town Council,” Brown said, who left after the council’s vote. “… I want to thank the council for my time here. I think we’ve gotten a lot of positive things accomplished. I made some mistakes, I regret those mistakes. As this community moves forward you have my best wishes.”
Disagreement over Brown’s early departure was aired in public for nearly an hour after objections to an attempt to discuss the issue in executive session were raised by Councilors David Watson, John Richardson, Wilson and Favreau.
“We’ve had too many closed-door meetings on this issue,” Richardson said.
The four councilors also opposed Brown’s early departure, with some of them questioning the motives of the five councilors who supported it.
“I have been on this council for almost eight years and I have never seen the turmoil I have seen in this era right now,” Favreau said, adding that the motion to dismiss Brown was “one-sided and unjustified.”
“I certainly recognize the turmoil,” Pols responded.
Pols said he was originally hoping to have Brown stay longer to make an easier transition to a new town manager. But he said he found more difficulties than he anticipated in the past five weeks.
“I anticipated the potential for awkwardness regarding, for lack of a better word, a ‘lame-duck situation,'” he said, “with a person in charge of the operation who is not going to be in charge not much longer, making discretionary calls on certain types of business that may have long-term impact.”
In addition, Pols said, he was facing pressure from citizens and other councilors to terminate Brown’s employment.
“And beginning last week on Tuesday, I began to change my opinion to be consistent to what I believe is a majority of the council,” he said.
Perreault said he supported Pols’ motion, in part, because he noticed that Brown was planning to take more days off than he would be working for his remaining time on the job.
He also said he assumes day-to-day operations can be handled short-term by other town staff. Eldridge was already expected to create next year’s municipal budget.
But most importantly, Perreault said, Brown’s early departure will allow the town to save some time and money, because the town won’t have to pay Brown for the additional month that he would have worked if he had stayed through March 31.
Richardson, however, called Pols’ motion “unfair and unjust,” and accused Pols and others of retaliating against Brown for a recent closed-door meeting Pols had with Brown and two developers that had upset Watson and Favreau.
Pols met with Brown, Priority Group President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Howard, and housing developer George Schott on Jan. 29 to receive information about a road connector being planned by the developers at Brunswick Landing, Pols said earlier on Monday.
Pols said he held the meeting because he wanted to get more information about possible developments being planned in the Cook’s Corner area, near where the Town Council is considering another connector road.
Favreau and Watson, who were not invited to Pols’ meeting, were notified by Brown of the meeting about an hour before it happened, and showed up at the Town Hall meeting before anyone else arrived.
Watson said he and Favreau should have been notified because the meeting concerned developments that were either in or adjacent to their districts.
“For (another) councilor to have a meeting like this is a slap in my face,” Watson said, “and I take serious offense.”
Richardson said Pols’ motion for Brown’s early departure was retaliatory because he acted only after a newspaper reporter asked about the meeting last week.
However, Pols said he started the process for for Monday’s proposal when he emailed Langsdorf, the town attorney, on Feb. 5 for advice on how the council should move forward in seeking Brown’s early departure.
In addition, Brayman said she contacted Pols on Feb. 4 to discuss the possibility of Brown’s early departure after the previous night’s council meeting, where Brown revealed a nearly $1 million renovation project for the new Town Hall building at 85 Union St. was $23,000 over budget.
“To have my motivations questioned and to hear talk of retaliation, it floors me,” Brayman said.
Monday’s meeting was originally planned as only a workshop to discuss the search for a new town manager, but that changed when a special meeting to discuss Brown’s severance agreement was scheduled by Pols on Feb. 7.