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Brandon town manager is put on leave

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Posted on March 19, 2015 |
By Lee J. Kahrs



BRANDON — The Brandon selectboard has placed Town Manager Robin Bennett on paid administrative leave.

“It means that she’s going to take the week off and figure out how dedicated she is to the town of Brandon,” Selectman Devon Fuller said last week after the board made the decision at a March 9 meeting. “It’s all part of her performance evaluation, which we began in February.”

The board had planned to meet with Bennett at this past Monday night meeting, but then postponed for another week a decision regarding Bennett’s employment with the town.

All indications are that Town Manager Robin Bennett is not coming back.

The Brandon Reporter has learned that on the night of March 9, after an executive session in which the board placed Bennett on administrative leave, Bennett went directly to the town offices and cleared out her personal possessions. Two Brandon police officers were requested to supervise Bennett’s activity, and the next day, a computer consultant was on hand to update security measures on the town’s computer systems.

The selectboard warned an executive session for Monday, March 16, to meet with Bennett and make a decision as to her future with the town. However, after the executive session was over, the board reported that no action was taken.

Neither Bennett nor her attorney were present at Monday’s executive session, but Selectman Seth Hopkins said attorneys for both sides could not coordinate scheduling.

“This is an ongoing personnel issue that we cannot discuss until it’s resolved,” board chair Doug Bailey said. “We’ve been put under tight scrutiny by our town attorney. This is to continue for exactly one more week.”

Bailey said the board will warn another executive session for Monday, March 23, at 9 a.m. at the Brandon Town Hall meeting room.

“We will have an answer at that time,” Bailey said.

There may also be a public hearing that evening at the regular selectboard meeting, which begins at 7 p.m. and is also held in the downstairs meeting room of the town hall.

Bennett did return a call requesting comment, but could only confirm that she has retained legal counsel.

“My attorney has advised me not to comment,” Bennett said.

Although no official reason has been given for placing Bennett on leave, members of the selectboard said last week that the decision was based on the town manager’s  performance evaluation. There have also been growing concerns by townspeople and board members alike over Bennett’s job performance and her ability to achieve results on myriad projects. There have been delays in a scheduled economic development study due to the town, the failure to realize a grant awarded for repairs to Wheeler Road, a now four-month delay on property waivers for the Segment 6 upgrade of Route 7, and a delay in sending the Union Street repair project out to bid. It also took several months to begin talks with the union to negotiate a new town employee contract. Those talks are now under way.

But Bennett was also responsible for helping to secure a $500,000 Community Development Block Grant to renovate the Town Office building on Center Street, empty since it was flooded during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. That work is set to begin this spring. She also helped manage the completion of the Option 8 water main project last summer that improved fire prevention on the north side of town.

EXIT STRATEGY

Bennett has come to separation agreements with past employers before. When the city of Barre chose not to renew her contract in 2006, Bennett negotiated a severance package that included $26,000 in cash. Bennett then took the job of town manager in Southwest Harbor, Maine. She resigned in June 2011 after coming to a mutual agreement with the selectboard there. Bennett reportedly received just over $80,000 in severance pay, including six months of salary, benefits, vacation time and business expense reimbursements.

Bennett was hired by the town of Brandon in August 2013. According to her three-year contract, signed Aug. 28, 2013, if the selectboard choses to terminate her employment before the contract expiration of Aug. 31, 2016, “for any reason other than one which constitutes just cause,” the town agrees to give Bennett six months notice and pay her 13 weeks salary, plus health insurance for 13 weeks, and compensation for any unused vacation time. Thirteen weeks of Bennett’s $85,000 would be roughly $21,000. She is entitled to four weeks of paid vacation annually.

However, having “just cause” means “a reasonable and lawful ground for action,” and if the Brandon selectboard terminates Bennett’s employment claiming it had just cause, the severance package in Bennett’s contract will not be honored.

Both Fuller and Hopkins told The Reporter last week that when Brandon voters approved all ballot measures and budgets on Town Meeting Day, the selectboard felt it was a mandate to act firmly.

“Accountability was lacking,” Fuller said. “The board felt that the voters showed some confidence in us and we have to prove it to them and perform. We’re not messing around anymore.”

Hopkins agreed.

“The town gave the selectboard everything we asked for at town meeting,” he said. “The responsibility that goes with that is we’re not kicking the can down the road anymore. We have a mandate and every member of this board is one the same page.”

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