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Bruised feelings, debate follow alderman’s email to city police chief

I was very disturbed that Alderman Koenig would make such an accusation towards me and in the manner which he did it.
— Police Chief George Merkel

VERGENNES — At a tense 40-minute personnel discussion at the Vergennes City Council last week, councilors talked at length about a Dec. 11 email sent by Alderman Mark Koenig to Police Chief George Merkel and its aftermath.
Later last week Koenig acknowledged that maybe he shouldn’t have written the email, in which he criticized Merkel for allegedly second-guessing the council’s hire of new City Manager Daniel Hofman and suggested Merkel consider resigning.
And Mayor Jeff Fritz acknowledged he misspoke at the council meeting.
And even after Merkel met on Friday last week with Fritz, Deputy Mayor Lynn Donnelly and Hofman, Merkel remains unhappy the council took so long to respond to his Dec. 16 letter to Fritz, former City Manager Matt Chabot and the council in which he asked the council “to address Alderman Koenig’s unwarranted actions.”
All this occurs after the council considered cutting two jobs from the police department this past June before backing off during heated public meetings, and the department’s officers have unionized.
This week all involved seemed to agree on a few points, some of them summed up by Alderman David Austin at the council’s Jan. 14 meeting.
“We have a very good police department. We spend a lot of money on it. That’s a given,” Austin said. “But these sorts of things do not help morale over there, and we just need to move forward.”
Another thing all agree upon is Hofman’s performance. Fritz, other council members, and his city hall co-workers have been enthusiastic about Hofman since he began on Jan. 2.
Merkel joined the chorus.
“My working relationship with Daniel is outstanding. He’s knowledgeable,” Merkel said. “He’s a fair and equitable guy, and I look forward to working with him.”
Hofman described his working relationship with Merkel as “better than good.”
“We hit it off immediately,” he said. “I have some of the best department heads there are, George included.”

ROOTS OF AN ISSUE
So what lies behind the Jan. 14 discussion?
The story starts at Hofman’s previous workplace in Guyton, Ga. The city’s mayor fired him without cause last summer. The city council in the fall reinstated him and awarded Hofman legal fees. Hofman’s résumé states he is “resilient and calm in the face of controversy.”
Hofman was hired in Vergennes with a verbal agreement on Dec. 5. Fritz said the city reviewed the Guyton situation in depth during screening.  
“It was dealt with to the council’s satisfaction during his interviews,” Fritz said.
But Merkel said soon afterward he heard from at least one city resident there had been an issue in Guyton.
“The information that came to my attention, I decided to bring to the city council’s attention,” Merkel said.
Merkel said he informed Donnelly, Austin and former city manager Mel Hawley. He said he was performing his duty by reporting a possible problem, and unlike some had heard, including Fritz, did not investigate Hofman.
But at last week’s council meeting, Koenig said residents in early December had told him that Merkel said Hofman was not a good pick.
“I heard from the community that this employee (Merkel) was dissatisfied with the city council’s choice of city manager,” Koenig said.
Merkel said it is possible his concern had been misinterpreted by other parties in the small town.  
“I actually thought about that afterwards, but there’s nobody else I remember talking to about that,” Merkel said. “They (council members) knew about it (the Guyton issue), and that was it … I never, ever said I couldn’t work with Daniel Hofman.”
Koenig told the Independent last week he was worried about what “at least two” residents told him; he didn’t want “a cloud” over Hofman’s head when he arrived. He agreed bad information was a possibility.
“I heard that the chief was dissatisfied with how the council had picked the new city manager, and it was a bad choice,” Koenig said. “I don’t know whether or not someone said, ‘I bet the chief is unhappy,’ and that turned into, ‘The chief is unhappy,’ or whether he actually said it. But I felt like it needed to be stopped. So if there was that kind of rumbling, I was asking him to act professional.”
Koenig said he tried and failed to contact Merkel by calling his office and stopping by the police station. And he said he forgot something that might have averted the issue. 
“It wasn’t until two nights ago I realized I have George’s cellphone number. I should have called him directly,” Koenig said. “But I did try to do it in person and just decided it couldn’t wait.”
Instead, Koenig sent the Dec. 11 email, signing it “Mark Koenig, Alderman, City of Vergennes.” He copied the rest of the council. It said Merkel had “found fault” with the choice, stated the council had done “due diligence in its hiring process,” and asked Merkel to “act in a professional and honorable manner” when Hofman arrived.
The email concluded, “If, however, you are unable or unwilling to act in such a manner, I expect you to provide City Manager Matt Chabot with your letter of resignation as soon as possible.”
Koenig told the Independent he wasn’t asking for Merkel’s resignation or acting on the council’s behalf.
“I wasn’t trying to say, ‘The council thinks this.’ I didn’t want anyone on the council to be surprised if suddenly they heard it,” Koenig said. “It was my attempt at transparency … But maybe that was the wrong thing to do. I’m not sure.”
In his Dec. 16 response, Merkel wrote he was “very disturbed that Alderman Koenig would make such an accusation towards me and in the manner which he did it.” He noted that he had for 10 years served Vergennes “in a professional and honorable manner and will continue to do so,” and had “no intention of resigning.”
Fritz noted that Chabot was only working two days a week in December, and the normal channel for handling such issues was not fully available.
“What happened was our chain of command broke down,” he said.
Fritz said there were better ways to handle the issue than the email, even if Koenig had the right to communicate with Merkel.
“It is unfortunate that conversation did not happen between the two of them,” Fritz said.

COUNCIL MEETING
Austin spoke out at the Jan. 14 city council meeting on the question of the delayed response.
“It’s dragged on for nearly a month now, and that’s entirely unacceptable,” Austin said.   
The council determined that concerns with employee performance, attitude or comments must be addressed through the city manager, the employees’ supervisor.
“What we needed to do we’ve done, which is clearly establish the employer-employee relationship resides between the employee and the city manager,” Austin said.
During the discussion on the issues, Fritz said something in an exchange with Austin that Fritz later acknowledged was not accurate.
“All I know is we received a letter … and we didn’t do anything with it for a month,” Austin said during the meeting.
“I would refute that nothing has been done with it,” Fritz responded. “I have had conversations with the employee (Merkel).”
Austin asked him to share the content of those conversations.
“Basically I said that future conversations with employees should first go through the city manager,” Fritz answered. “I also said that I felt there was a personal opinion expressed that I certainly thought that this individual had the right to express. However, I wished that it might have taken place in person, or between the two parties.”  
This past Thursday, Fritz told the Independent those conversations did not take place.
“What I did was combine a conversation I had with a council member with a conversation I intended to have with George. And George and I were unable to connect,” Fritz said. “And I woke up yesterday morning and went, ‘Oh, my goodness, did I say what I think I said?’ And I did. And I misspoke.”
Fritz added, “George certainly deserves an apology from me for misrepresenting what I said.”

FRIDAY MEETING
That apology occurred at the Friday meeting attended by Merkel, Fritz, Donnelly and Hofman.
“The mayor apologized to me for not dealing with this sooner,” Merkel said. “He told me he took ownership and would correct his misrepresentations at the next city council meeting.”
Fritz said the meeting ended with a “happier” police chief.
“The chief spoke very candidly, very frankly and at length, and I appreciated the opportunity for that conversation to be had,” he said. 
 As for Merkel’s letter asking for the council to address Koenig’s email, Fritz said the delay was unfortunate, but the council’s response was sound.
“The council took the action it was willing to take on Tuesday, which is to acknowledge this happened and the way it doesn’t happen again is to follow appropriate channels,” he said. “So, yes, I would like to apologize to George on behalf of the council for the entire episode.”
Fritz called the work of the police department “outstanding,” although he and Koenig are among aldermen who last summer favored cuts to a police budget that comprises almost 40 percent of the city’s budget, not counting fee-supported sewer spending, and assuming bond payments for the police station are included.
“My argument about the police department as it is today is strictly a matter of dollars and cents, the percentage of our budget that is devoted to the police department is enormous,” Fritz said.
Fritz said he has learned, and hopes others have learned, a lesson.
“We’ve all got to keep talking. Part of the failure here in this whole endeavor is once that (police) budget debacle happened to us (last summer) it seemed that everybody clammed up, and that was a grievous error,” Fritz said.
Did Merkel feel satisfied after the meeting?
“Obviously it was upsetting, and I think I got things off my chest. In that sense I feel better. But as far as how things go from here, we’ll see,” he said.
Merkel agreed with Austin this issue has contributed to his force feeling a lack of respect from some council members.
“There’s been a lot of tension, and definitely a morale issue since the budget issue started last June,” he said.
Merkel said he agreed with the council’s response. As for the rest?
“I just want to move forward and get things forward in the right direction,” he said, adding, “We’ll have to see what happens.”

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