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Investigator to probe South Portland layoffs

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Investigator to probe South Portland layoffs

SOUTH PORTLAND — The city has agreed to work with an outside investigator looking into the layoffs of five veteran city employees. 

The decision came less than week after one of the former employees submitted her own report to the city manager and mayor and nearly a week before some residents are planning a public rally for the formers workers at City Hall. 

City Manager Jim Gailey said the investigation will be conducted by Mike Wing, who runs a human resource and labor relations consulting firm in Yarmouth.

Gailey, who held a preliminary meeting with Wing on Wednesday, said it's too soon to tell how long the investigation will last or how much it would cost the city. Gailey predicted, however, the cost would not reach the $10,000 threshold that would require City Council approval.

Gailey said the investigation will focus on the complaints outlined in the report by Deb Smith, who was the Recreation Department operations manager for nearly 28 years. She issued her own report after the city balked at conducting a face-to-face exit interview.

Gailey has encouraged the four other laid-off employees to submit written exit testimonies, but has not received any. If he does, Gailey said the investigation could be expanded to address any additional concerns that may be outlined.

"I don't know if any more (reports) are coming in," he said. 

Mayor Tom Blake said he hopes the other employees will submit information.

"I encouraged (Gailey) to do personal exit interviews from the get-go," Blake said. "I'm hoping that the other four laid-off employees will also follow with a written letter. We want that."

Smith's report, which was sent only to Gailey and Blake, is not being made public because the city considers it part of a confidential personnel file. As such, Gailey said, it will not be forwarded to city councilors, either.  

Blake, who has read the report but would not comment, said he hopes the investigation will not be limited to the specific claims of Smith's report. "I have encouraged Jim Gailey to go further and do an evaluation of the entire process," he said. 

Meanwhile, several residents are planning a rally on Monday, April 6, at 6:15 p.m., just before the City Council's meeting. 

Organizer Vicky Smith, who is not related to the laid-off worker, said in a press release that the employees should be reinstated to allow time for a public debate. Smith said many people are not convinced that alternatives to the firings were pursued.

"South Portland is a tight-knit community," Smith said. "People were shocked by how this was done."

Deb Smith, along with Public Works Supervisor David Gaudet, Human Resources assistant Pamela St. John, young adult librarian Reta Nappi and library secretary Monica Dubay were abruptly laid off on Feb. 24. Although they had worked for the city for 15 to 40 years, each was given only five minutes to gather personal belongings before being escorted out of their offices.

It was the first time since 1991 that layoffs were needed in the city, and the manner in which they were done sparked indignation from some residents.

"People are angry and frustrated by the process that led to the decision to terminate these positions," protest organizer Angela Griffiths said. "These decisions were made in a vacuum."

Deb Smith has indicated that she believes she was targeted because of her vocal criticism of Dana Anderson, the director of Parks, Recreation, Public Works and Libraries. South Portland Human Resources Director John McGough would neither confirm nor deny whether any formal complaints had been filed against Anderson. 

Gailey said the city targeted middle managers to achieve maximum savings while limiting the number of employees affected by the layoffs and minimizing the impact on services. But critics noted the young adult room at the library has been closed since Dubay's dismissal.

Gailey sought to minimize layoffs this year by offering a voluntary retirement incentive, which was taken by six employees. The city has since spent $140,000 on severance packages – ranging from $49,600 for Gaudet's 40 years of service to $9,000 for Dubay's 15 years – for the five recently displaced employees and given them letters of recommendation. Smith received a $40,000 severance package. 

Blake said he respects the fact that residents are upset about the layoffs and want to express their frustration. However, the City Council has limited options, he said, since the City Charter prohibits elected officials from interfering in day-to-day personnel decisions. 

The council only has direct oversight of the city manager, city clerk and corporation counsel. 

"People have the right to speak," Blake said. "I just encourage everybody to be civil. ... Whether any good will come of this or not, I don't know."

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