South Portland to go outside city for acting manager

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council plans to hire consultant Don Gerrish of Brunswick as interim city manager.

Councilors reached the consensus at a workshop Monday, June 27.

Gerrish, development consultant for the Eaton Peabody Consulting Group and a former town manager in Brunswick and Gorham for nearly 30 years, will replace Jim Gailey, who is leaving the job at the end of July.

The decision to hire Gerrish was reached despite a recommendation from Human Resources Director Don Brewer to make Assistant City Manager Josh Reny the acting manager.

The rest of the workshop was taken up by diversity training session for councilors. 

Councilors said the decision was not meant to reflect on Reny, but instead on the council’s desire to bring in someone from outside City Hall. 

Councilor Linda Cohen said she has been “extremely impressed” with Reny since he was hired last August, after serving as town manager in Fairfield. 

Councilor Brad Fox also said Reny has done “an exceptional job.”

And Councilor Maxine Beecher said she hopes Reny’s application is included in the pool the council considers for the full-time position later this year. 

Brewer recommended the city appoint Reny as interim city manager and bring in an outsider to serve as interim assistant city manager. Blake supported Brewer’s recommendation, and said, “it would be the right thing to do” for the city. It’s “important to maintain continuity,” he said. 

Brewer also told councilors at the June 27 workshop that retaining Gerrish as interim city manager for three to four months, for up to three days a week, would cost $650 a day. Hiring the firm to conduct a search for a permanent city manager would cost the city about $10,500, Brewer said. Both figures are negotiable, he said. 

Gerrish is slated to meet with the council in the next two weeks. 

Diversity training

The council’s diversity training was led by Liz Greason and Deb Breiting of the Maine Intercultural Communication Consultants.  

An outline of their presentation said that by undertaking the training, the council hoped to better integrate the “multicultural community into the fabric of the city,” and develop “tools and understanding to skillfully handle conflicts that may be culturally based/influenced.”

“How do we become more culturally competent?” Greason asked. “We have an opportunity in every interaction to create a connection or to create misunderstanding.”

The training session focused almost exclusively on ethnic diversity, rather than social diversity. It was held after a Maine Human Rights Commission complaint was lodged against the council by city resident Deqa Dhalac, Blake confirmed Wednesday, although the commission has declined to either confirm or deny the complaint exists.

Dhalac’s complaint is believed to involve the council’s failure to appoint her to the Civil Service Commission in March, and the reappointment of sitting member Phillip LaRou. Dhalac is a Somali immigrant; LaRou is a white male.

Fox nominated Dhalac to the commission and, when it was rejected, he and Councilor Eben Rose criticized fellow councilors for failing to diversify when an opportunity was presented. 

Rose, who voted against reappointing LaRou and cited the importance of appointing Dhalac, told councilors at the March 7 meeting, “When you run into two candidates who are qualified in qualitatively different ways, then you run into a value choice,” between continuity and the agency of change, he said.

Rose said Dhalac has “extensive qualifications in personnel issues and, most importantly, she has extensive qualifications in dealing with structural racism. Yes, I said the ‘R’ word.”

Councilors who voted in the majority accused Fox of unfairly attempting to shoehorn Dhalac into the position. 

Councilor Claude Morgan, following the meeting in March, said the council’s decision was “not about preventing the addition of diversity to boards,” but “there are options other than yanking someone off a board just for the sake of creating diversity.”

While Blake on Wednesday did not elaborate on the complaint, he did say it was the first MHRC complaint he’s seen lodged against councilors, rather than the city as a whole. 

Dhalac’s MHRC complaint was not explicitly discussed at the Monday training session.

But near the end of the workshop, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said, “I guess the thing I want to make sure is that cultural competence is not code for affirmative action. In other words, for accepting reduced standards in order to achieve inclusion.”

“No,” Greason replied. 

“And I don’t think it is, but if we don’t talk about that, maybe there’ll be some confusion,” Haeuser said. 

“The idea that someone should get a job based purely on your characteristic in a certain category is certainly not what we’re advocating,” Greason said. “We are advocating for learning how to create an environment that’s more inclusive (in order to) create the environment that would ultimately create that integration more seamlessly.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.