SOUTH PORTLAND — In late February, City Manager Jim Gailey decided to balance the budget by laying off five veteran employees. The move sparked protests and outrage from some residents and city councilors because of the way it was handled.
Acting on the advice of an attorney, Gailey informed the workers they had five minutes to gather their belongings and were then escorted from the buildings, where most had worked for decades. The former employees received severance packages and, while no exit interviews took place, each employee was asked to submit their concerns in a letter.
A letter submitted by Deb Smith, the former Recreation Department operations manager, prompted an independent review of the department.
Over the last three months, Gailey has apologized for the seemingly cold nature of how the layoffs were conducted, even though that process is widely used in the private sector. Gailey has suggested he often thinks about how the situation could have been better managed.
However, his apology and promises to do better in the future have not satisfied some residents, who continue to call for an in-depth investigation and review of the layoffs. The City Council meeting on Monday, May 18, was no exception.
The layoffs now appear to have driven a wedge between members of the council, which clashed over whether to go behind closed doors to evaluate Gailey’s job performance. The effort to review Gailey is being spearheaded by Councilor Jim Soule, who – holding up a red binder Monday night – said he had information the council needed to hear.
Opposition councilors accused Soule of harassing Gailey and carrying a vendetta against the director of Parks & Recreation, Public Works and Libraries. Soule, in turn, accused one councilor of slander.
Councilor Tom Coward was one of four councilors who voted in favor of reviewing Gailey, but the effort failed because five votes are need to go into executive session.
Coward said he supports Gailey and thinks he’s done “an exemplary job,” but he felt obligated to give Soule a chance to say his piece so the council could move on.
“It’s not appropriate for me to shut off a councilor from raising issues he thinks he has in an appropriate setting,” Coward said.
Councilor Linda Boudreau, however, said there was too much tension for the council to enter into closed session without an attorney to keep the discussions on track. Boudreau was joined in her opposition by Councilors Maxine Beecher and Jim Hughes.
“When the issue isn’t really the issue, it’s easy to get off track,” Boudreau said. “The tension of the current issue makes it impossible for the council to regulate itself.”
Beecher said residents seem to be upset about the process, not the manager. Process issues, such as the reason some positions were chosen and how those layoffs were carried out, are all topics for public discussion.
The opposition said that Gailey’s job performance has been reviewed twice in less than a year. The council also discussed Gailey’s handling of the layoffs in open session during a workshop last week – a discussion that walked a fine line between public policy and private personnel matters.
“It’s starting to feel a little bit like harassment of the city manager,” Beecher said. “I think we need to be careful of that.”
Beecher cited The Forecaster’s ongoing series by South Portland resident Sean Baker, who was laid off from his radio job after more than 20 years, as an example of how layoffs are commonly conducted. Baker’s first column detailed his experience, which was much like the one used by the city.
Realizing his effort to meet privately was about to fail, Soule suggested the council discuss Gailey’s performance in public, but no one supported him. He pushed back against Hughes’ suggestion that he was somehow fanning the flames of public discontent, calling the charge “slander.”
“This is not a headhunting expedition and no one’s looking for a pound of flesh,” Soule said. “You three councilors have blocked my attempt to move forward and better the city and the council.”
Mayor Tom Blake summarized the situation more broadly.
“In this process, we are not asking the right questions and we’re not on the same page,” Blake said. “We can indeed do a better job.”