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South Portland City Council openly reviews policy, manager

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South Portland City Council openly reviews policy, manager

SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council on Monday held a spirited and public discussion about the city manager's job performance and, to some extent, the city's personnel policy.

Councilors generally described the city's personnel policy as a flawed document, and City Manager Jim Gailey said he has been working behind the scenes with the human resources director to make revisions.

However, most of the discussion was about Gailey's handling of the layoff of five city employees and subsequent public fallout. It was the first time
since the early 1990s that the city's largely veteran workforce was
targeted for layoffs.

Councilor Patti Smith, who has a background in human resources, presented suggestions for changing the policy. Any layoffs should be coupled with a three-phase plan that would communicate how the decisions were reached, address what is referred to as "survivor syndrome" of remaining employees and a six-month post plan review. 

"People are asking for more transparency and to have their questions answered," Smith said. "I've found myself frustrated at times. Our policy might be able to get us through these tough times." 

Councilor Linda Boudreau said those policies should be determined by Gailey, not the council. Boudreau then railed against public statements made by some councilors, employees and residents about the way the layoffs were handled and subsequent criticisms of city department heads. She also claimed "the press" has published insinuations about city employees.

"It feels like we're after a pound of flesh," Boudreau said. "It seems like a lot of innocent people have been targeted in such cruel and vicious ways that no one can be proud of." 

She added, "Those five employees are not going to get their jobs back because we hanged Tim Gato," the newly appointed deputy of Parks & Recreation, Public Works and Libraries.

Councilor Jim Soule, however, criticized Boudreau's rhetoric, suggesting it was unproductive. "It does no good to be talking about a pound of flesh," he said.

Although Boudreau argued that personnel policy should not be driven by public sentiment, Soule said residents have a right to question their government. 

"People are questioning the methodology of the layoffs," Soule said. "If we think we have done our best effort, then I am disappointed."

The conversation then turned to Gailey's handling of the layoffs. Although the council scheduled an executive session to evaluate the city manager, the discussion unravelled in public and the council did not address the motion for an executive session at the end of the workshop. 

The executive session was requested by Soule and it's unclear whether he will seek another closed session on May 18. 

Gailey repeated that the layoffs were made based on positions, not people. If anything could be changed, Gailey said he would have provided career and emotional counseling services at the time of the layoffs, with subsequent follow-up. He would have also held a press conference to answer questions, rather than spending weeks addressing inquiries. 

In addition to revising the personnel policy, Gailey said department heads are devising strategic plans that would be used to guide future staffing decisions. He has also redoubled efforts for regular performance reviews of both department heads and their employees. 

Councilor Jim Hughes, along with most councilors, expressed their support for Gailey.

"It was the best that could have happened with the situation," Hughes said. "Five people lost their jobs – there's no good way for that to happen. I'm glad the city doesn't do a good job of (laying people off)."

On Wednesday, Gailey said he did not know the public discussion would focus on him. However, he said he was glad it happened and afforded councilors an opportunity to express their opinions. Gailey said not a day goes by without him reliving the February layoffs. 

"I think it was a healthy discussion," Gailey said. "It allowed me to tell the council what we've been doing behind the scenes."

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net