• Personnel matter or something else?
     | November 02,2013

    As a former Montpelier City Council member, I am really surprised and disappointed that members of the Montpelier City Council, the mayor and the city manager would be commenting about a “conflict” that, in its earliest incarnation, did not sound like a personnel matter, but which has now morphed into one, according to certain city leaders. That the City Council, as a whole, would see fit to take sides in public about a matter which they themselves now characterize as questions about performance (references by the City Council to the Matrix Consulting Group study’s report that included the city planning department) is surprising and raises a level of liability for the City that is particularly shocking.

    “No comment.” That’s what you say when it allegedly involves personnel matters. It’s simply not up for public discussion by anyone who works for the city, elected or otherwise.

    Ironically, the “statement” issued by all the City Council members, in an attempt to provide “unanimous and unequivocal support” to the city manager and the mayor, gives away what seems like the very issue that seemed to have started this whole debate. In its “statement,” the City Council says: “Aside from raising legitimate questions with the City Manager about conflicts between the Planning Director’s outside advocacy and her job responsibilities to the City, the Mayor has had no role whatsoever in this personnel matter.” To me, this sounds like an admission that the mayor did question whether Ms. Hallsmith’s outside activities, for instance, her personal support of public banking, are a question of “conflict.”

    What, in fact, are the “legitimate questions” about Ms. Hallsmith’s outside activities that the City Council references?

    In an attempt to minimize the “legitimate questions,” the City Council tries hard to claim the Mayor played no “role.” How can this not be a “role” if the Mayor of the City questions a city employee’s outside activities? What if the question were about whether she practiced Judaism, or supported the gay rights movement, or was opposed to the use of drones? Where do you draw the line?

    Isn’t that what this is all about? What knowledge do City Council members have about what exactly Mayor Hollar said to the city manager about Ms. Hallsmith’s “conflicts?” They seem to know something. Is there evidence that she has “conflicts?” Why did the mayor bring this up with the city manager in the first place? What’s his motivation in asking questions of the city manager about Ms. Hallsmith’s personal political and economic beliefs and philosophy?

    If differing personal opinions and activities among city employees are open for debate by those who employ them, Montpelier city government is in trouble.

    At the very least, perception can strongly outweigh reality especially when the whole thing is taken into the public realm. In writing this statement and publicly weighing in on this issue, the Montpelier City Council has effectively disqualified itself as an unbiased arbiter of personnel matters if and when this issue is brought to a closed session of the council to discuss “personnel matters,” exactly where such matters belong. How can they possibly make a fair and balanced decision when they have already publicly taken sides?

    As a former chief of staff for a member of Congress, I know intimately about the passion, self-interest, and well-rewarded work that lobbyists perform for their sponsors. In Washington, D.C., the tsunami of lobbyists on Capitol Hill is overwhelming and out of control at this point. In Vermont, we enjoy a much more respectful, less strong-armed, legislative environment than the one in Washington, D.C. We are lucky in that reality.

    I would never criticize, much less “vilify” Mayor Hollar for his lobbying work or for whom he works. He has every right to serve simultaneously as mayor and a lobbyist for private banking interests. If it’s true, and the City Council seemed to admit this, that the mayor expressed his concern to the city manager that Ms. Hallsmith’s outside activities (one of which supports the idea of a public Vermont bank) worry him, then this was inappropriate, at the very least. Glass houses come to mind? How could this question from the mayor through the city manager, or even the suggestion of it, brought to an employee about her outside life, interests and beliefs not be intimidating, alarming and threatening?

    Bottom line: If you are a city council member or a city supervisor of some sort, and you believe this is really a personnel matter, then deal with it accordingly, not in a way that disrespects the city’s personnel policies, and thus all employees of the city.

    Stephen McArthur lives in Berlin. He is a former Montpelier resident and city councilor.

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