What could be a juicier local story than a mayor using his public authority to protect his big bank corporate lobbying interests by constraining the free speech rights of a hardworking public servant? Toss in a “smoking gun” email and you’ve got everything. Except the truth.
The allegations against Mayor John Hollar are simply not true. First, the mayor has no role in personnel decisions and, therefore, is not in a position to take any action against an employee. Second, the mayor did not send any memos or make any comments to Planning Director Gwendolyn Hallsmith, contrary to the initial story in The Times Argus. Third, the mayor did not ask me to take any specific action with regard to Ms. Hallsmith. And fourth, the mayor emphatically did not seek to restrict Ms. Hallsmith’s protected free speech rights.
In the week of Sept. 16-20, Mayor Hollar called me to relay concerns brought to him by the chairman of the Planning Commission about the role of the planning director in the lack of progress with the rezoning effort.
On Friday, Sept. 20, I sent the following email to the mayor:
“Am following up with Gwen today in writing, will tell her to back off on the PC, am putting (Assistant City Manager) Jessie (Baker) in charge of her dept and her, telling her the concerns and telling her to join our Monday meeting on the 30th. I’ll send you and the council confidential copies of the memo. I’ve asked Kim (Cheney) when a good time to talk with him is and will call Jon (Anderson) as well.” (Cheney and Anderson are chairman and vice chairman of the Planning Commission, respectively.)
My decision to alert Ms. Hallsmith in writing of serious issues was already made at that point. I suggested having the mayor join a meeting with Ms. Hallsmith and me to talk over concerns.
Nearly two hours later, the mayor responded to me with the email which forms the basis for Ms. Hallsmith’s allegations against him. He forwarded information which had been sent to him about a city ballot petition campaign by an organization of which Ms. Hallsmith is the founder to consolidate several existing state agencies and form a state bank. In his email to me, the mayor said the following:
“I would like to know 1) how Gwen manages to run her non-profit and pursue this initiative while maintaining her obligation to the City; and 2) how this campaign is consistent with the City’s economic development policies and her job description. Why in the world would the city want to take a position in support of consolidating the agencies below (and antagonizing some of the most senior economic development officials in the state)? More importantly, this is something the council has never discussed. Gwen obviously can pursue interests on her own time, but as the city’s chief economic development officer, her position on these issues can’t be distinguished from her official position with the city.
“Between this and the planning commission fiasco, this really can’t continue. I’m not sure I see the point in my meeting with her to outline these concerns. I’ve raised them before with you, I assume they’ve been communicated to her, and nothing has changed.”
Mayor Hollar did not ask for any personnel action, stated clearly that Ms. Hallsmith can pursue her own interests on her own time, and chose not to attend the meeting dealing with the personnel conflicts, instead leaving that to me. The mayor did ask about use of her time and noted that the city had not taken a position on the issue of consolidating agencies. Mayor Hollar made it clear to me that what “can’t continue” was the confusion between Ms. Hallsmith’s public and private roles and the ongoing conflict between the Planning Commission and her. The mayor could not have influenced my action because, as documented above, my decision was already made.
Public employees have a right under the First Amendment to speak as citizens on matters of public concern. That right is limited in law, however, by the legitimate interest of the employer to ensure that the employee’s speech is clearly independent and does not impair the effectiveness of the public services promoted by the employer.
I strongly support the right of free speech. It is my job, however, to ensure the effective implementation of city policies and delivery of city services, and to assure that taxpayer dollars are used as effectively as possible. The mayor, and any City Council member, are certainly doing their jobs by making inquiries and expressing concerns about city operations and activities. Finally, it is a reasonable expectation that city employees are effective and maintain productive working relationships with the City Council, any committee they work with, and their boss, the city manager.
William J. Fraser is Montpelier’s city manager.
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