At Monday’s special budget meeting, Mayor Dennis Boback disregarded the urging of two of his fellow council members to bring a quick end to any possible litigation involving former Town Manager Don Stilwell by changing their decision to terminate him from ‘with’ to ‘without cause.’ Instead, Boback directed Town Attorney Dawn Lehnert to call Stilwell’s attorney – George Knott – to ‘find out what he wants’ and report back at the June 20th Council meeting.
Both council member Rexann Hosafros, an attorney, and Dawn Lehnert, the Town’s attorney warned council that any delay in resolving the legal situation created by firing Stilwell for cause on June 3rd, will translate into more legal fees. Lehnert told council they would need to hire an outside attorney with employment law expertise to handle the hearing requested by Stilwell. Hosafros advised that delays in setting a hearing could mean more legal costs also.
After Council voted 3-2 on June 3rd to terminate Stilwell ‘with cause’, Stilwell’s attorney – George Knott, of the firm Knott, Ebelini and Hart – sent a letter to Boback, dated June 7th, as a formal request for a reconsideration hearing. Such a hearing is a right granted to Stilwell under Article VI, Chapter 6.02 of the Town Charter, which reads, “If the vote is less than unanimous by all council members, the town manager may, within 7 days of the dismissal motion by council, submit to the mayor a written request for reconsideration.” Knott’s letter also offers an alternative — change Stilwell’s termination to be ‘for convenience’ – or without cause, stating this ‘would certainly be a less costly option for the Town’.
Both residents who spoke during public comment on Monday addressed Stilwell’s termination.
First, resident Barbara Hill called Council’s decision to terminate Stilwell “mean-spirited, disruptive and illegal.”
“I am very disappointed and I’m angry with the three council members who voted…to terminate the Town Manager, especially without providing a hearing. This clearly violates Mr. Stilwell’s right to due process. Sufficient evidence for cause was not established. What you did was unnecessary, mean-spirited, disruptive and illegal. Don Stilwell has done a fine job as Town Manager. We are in this beautiful remodeled Town Hall that we no longer rent, but now own-a testimony to Don’s experience, leadership and his problem solving skills…A recent example of his success was his ability to get the State Revolving Fund (loan) approved at a low rate to cover the cost of the water line project…During that (June 3rd) meeting Mayor Boback…said the Town has lost faith and trust in our Town Manager, I don’t know to what extent he polled the voters, but to me, this is not true. He did not speak to me and he didn’t speak to many others in this community…Council woman Tracey Gore also said she speaks for ‘6,000 residents and they are unhappy’. Again, she did not speak to me and others who have already publicly spoken for Don…Please stop this madness, let justice be served. It is my hope that council would see the error of its ways and reinstate Don Stilwell after his hearing.”
Jay Light spoke next.
“You fired Don Stilwell for cause, for nonfeasance, for something he allegedly ‘didn’t do’. Some of you apparently believe you don’t even have to say what it is he didn’t do,” Light said… Let’s look at the last three things Don did do before you fired him. As soon as he became aware of the oversight of the Town not having paid a bunch of invoices, he managed the situation, as any good manager should. He made it right with the contractors so the Town won’t have to pay one penny in late fees or interest. He then called for an outside investigation to figure out where the process failed and his last deed was to finalize the loan to pay the invoices at a lower rate of interest .9% as opposed to 1.8%, which over a ten year period, will save the town a big pile of money.
“The oversight was a mistake, but it was inadvertent. On the other hand, what you have done was not inadvertent. It was coldly premeditated and it constitutes malfeasance, not nonfeasance, and it was executed so incompetently you have given Mr. Stilwell a list of improper actions, any one of which will be a reason for him to prevail in any legal action he takes…You have dug the town into a hole that will cause turmoil that will long outlive any of your terms in office…If you see this misguided action through, you will squander all the money that Don has saved you on legal fees and you’ll lose too. The question of whose judgment and actions the Town’s citizens have lost faith and trust in has just got a lot wider.”
Following the two Public Comment speakers, the question of what to do about Stilwell’s requested hearing was not mentioned again until the end of the meeting, when Lehnert mentioned the letter she’d received from Stilwell’s attorney, and asked if Council would consider modifying their termination to ‘without cause’.
“There is an opportunity for me to call Mr. Knott to discuss a termination hearing, which we did not have at this point – so he is entitled to a due process hearing,” she said. “In addition, I think there is an opportunity to discuss a potential settlement that would not require us to go to a hearing, but may require the council to change how they terminated Mr. Stilwell…Are you okay with me exploring the gamut of possibilities?”
Boback said that he was and Hosafros strongly suggested that Council make a motion to change their termination of Stilwell.
“I can’t imagine any scenario in which litigation would cost us less than modifying to “without cause’,” Hosafros said.
Gore said that all they’re asking for is an appeal, not litigation, and Hosafros replied that the hearing will cost the Town money ‘right off the bat’ because they will need to hire an attorney who’s an expert in employment law.
“If you change your motion, we don’t have to give him a hearing – just send a letter,” she said.
Boback said he’d like Lehnert to talk to Mr. Knott first to ‘find out what he wants’, and Lehnert agreed to do that and return to Council at their regular meeting on Monday.
“I wouldn’t consider changing my motion until after we get a response,” he said.
”I can’t talk to George (Knott) and set a hearing in that conversation,” Lehnert said. “The reason that we cannot do that is because the Town Council has got to articulate, chapter and verse, of why the termination was with cause. That has not been done yet. I do not know what that looks like. I don’t know exactly what the allegations will be but those have to be all put together. I have indicated to the Mayor that I am not able to handle that case. I don’t have the expertise that you would need so you would have to hire another attorney who would have to be involved in this process. It would draw out way past July. You have all of that-those are all additional costs that you will incur without a doubt…If you want me to talk to Mr. Knott first and then decide on Monday that’s fine, but you’re going to be in the same space at the end of the day.”
Hosafros said, should this ‘not go down the road quickly’ then Council needs to set a hearing before the July break to avoid increased damages due to a delay.
Boback said several times that he wanted to hear how Lehnert’s meeting with Knott goes before considering any change in Stilwell’s termination.
Lehnert indicated she would meet with Knott. She then told Council that she wished to hire outside counsel to deal with a new lawsuit filed against the town regarding beach chair rentals, indicating that she is not a litigation attorney and this case might be dismissed on motion or go to federal court so it needs a litigation attorney.
After the meeting, council member Anita Cereceda told us that she doesn’t understand where Mayor Boback is coming from.
“This is a process that I feel should unfold properly with the highest regard for the Town’s welfare,” she said. “I don’t really understand the mayor’s motivation.”
During the June 3rd meeting when Stilwell was terminated, Boback told Council he’d met with an outside private attorney before preparing the motion to terminate Stilwell.
“Before I did this, “ Boback said at that meeting, “I spent plenty of time with an outside attorney, which did not cost the Town a dime, and had him look this over (referring to his motion.)
When we asked him for the name of that outside attorney following this Monday’s meeting, he replied, “It’s just an attorney I talked to, to make sure I covered my own butt, it had nothing to do with the Town and didn’t cost the Town a penny.”
Keri Hendry Weeg