'People have lost confidence in their government'

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Residents amp up pressure on City Council to review layoffs

SOUTH PORTLAND — About 40 protesters braved wind and driving rain Monday night to show their support for five city workers who were laid off last month and to demand answers from city officials.

Protesters huddled on the porch of City Hall, holding signs with handwritten messages ranging from calls for transparency to accusing city officials of union busting. 

A group of five young girls enthusiastically chanted, “We’re not happy without Ms. Nappi.” Young adult librarian Reta Nappi, an employee of 20 years, was one of the laid off employees. The teen room at the main library on Broadway was closed after Nappi’s departure. 

On Feb. 24, Deb Smith, David Gaudet, Pamela St. John, Monica Dubay and Nappi were fired and given five minutes to collect their belongings before being escorted from their jobs. Some residents have questioned the timing, manner and process of the layoffs, lamenting the lack of public discussion about ways to deal with the city’s budget woes. 

City Manager Jim Gailey previously said the layoffs occurred when they did so the savings could be realized on July 1, the start of the next fiscal year. The city paid out about $190,000 for the five employees this year and expects to save $283,000 in the next budget. Another $138,000 is expected to be saved next year through six voluntary retirements and resignations, which cost the city $140,000 in the current budget. 

Gailey has also said the city targeted middle managers to maximize savings and limit the number of layoffs needed and the impact on local services.

Protest organizer Vicky Smith, who is not related to former employee Deb Smith, said the closure of the teen room was one example of how services have been affected by the layoffs.

“We know they’re not telling us the whole truth and we want to know what else they’re not telling us,” Smith said. “People have lost confidence in their government.”

Although the city has hired an independent investigator to review claims made by Deb Smith in an exit letter, Vicky Smith said a broader investigation is needed. The laid-off workers, she said, should be reinstated until the process is thoroughly reviewed and all other cost-cutting options are examined.  

Bill Alexander, a Cape Elizabeth resident who worked for the main library for 27 years before retiring nearly 10 years ago, helped establish the teen room that was shuttered after Nappi’s layoff. He said the teen room quickly became popular, because no one else in the area was serving that population. 

“They fell between the cracks and nobody cared about them in an after-school setting,” Alexander said, noting Nappi should be reinstated and the teen room should be fully funded. “I think (the city) just dumped those children right out on the streets.”

Mary Chenevert, a librarian, said the steady stream of students that used to use the library has dried up. Chenevert said it’s no coincidence that Nappi, a negotiator for the upstart library union, was terminated.

“I believe the city is union busting,” Chenevert said. “We have no contract after three years.”

Karen Westerberg said she was upset that four out of the five laidoff employees were women in their 50s and that several employees, including Parks, Recreation and Public Works Director Dana Anderson, received raises just prior to the layoffs. 

After the rally, organizers led the drenched protesters into City Hall, where they were joined by more residents who were upset about the layoffs. In council chambers, about 20 people addressed and demanded answers from city leaders. 

Don Russell and Rosemarie DeAngelis, who are mediators by trade, said they would be willing to donate their time and services to help resolve tensions and answer the questions raised by citizens. 

“I believe the answer lies between two points and they are never equidistant,” said Russell, noting he would reluctantly resign his position on the Planning Board, if needed.

Meanwhile, former city attorney Mary Kahl said the council needs to stop hiding behind the City Charter clause that prevents councilors from micromanaging hiring and firing decisions. Since the layoffs were budget-driven, not performance-based, she said councilors have a responsibility to review the decision, rather than telling people to simply move on. 

“That’s not how accountability works,” Kahl told councilors. “The buck stops with you.” 

City Manager Jim Gailey said he is drafting written responses to all of the questions raised over the last month and a half. He said those answers will be posted on the city’s Web site. 

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

s-splayoffrally2.JPGSouth Portland residents protest Monday night at City Hall, demanding answers regarding recent layoffs. (Billings photo)

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s-splayoffrally1.JPGMahoney Middle School students protest the layoff of young adult librarian Reta Nappi. (Billings photo)