An exhausting, three-hour plus meeting for Narragansett Town Council members and the public on Thursday night finally culminated with the end of Grady Miller as town manager, and Police Chief Dean Hoxsie taking over for now.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-1 to accept a termination agreement negotiated with Miller during executive session. Councilors Glenna Hagopian, David Crook, Alisa Trainor Fleet and Christopher Wilkens voted to accept the termination agreement, with councilor Susan Cicilline-Buonanno voting against.
Wilkens noted that he was voting for the agreement under duress.
“If we don’t agree to these terms, it’s clear he’ll just be fired,” Wilkens said.
Throughout Thursday’s meeting, it was established that a three-person majority – Hagopian, Crook and Fleet – existed to fire Miller. Hagopian spoke at length defending her decision, although her reasons were attacked by most of the residents attending.
“After the May 21 meeting, I approached Grady Miller, having been very frustrated with the meeting, and asked the town solicitor to accompany me,” she said. “I told him [Miller] personally that I didn’t find his leadership effective, and I asked him to resign.”
Hagopian said she had problems with Miller’s budget work, citing .
Bringing up the $3,000 to the NRPA, Hagopian said, “There are several recent transactions, the most visible being the Narrow River transaction…”
However, she was cutoff in midsentence by boos.
Hagopian also cited a quote from Miller in an article in The South County Independent, in which he noted that government budgeting wasn’t always black and white, and the council gave him authority as manager to shift funds accordingly.
“This statement represents a factual inconsistency,” she said.
She added, “While it may have appeared from information that I’ve exposed that I have some axe to grind with Grady, that is not the case … Every action I’ve taken since being elected has been for the Town of Narragansett.”
Fleet was limited in her remarks, instead reading from a short statement, which she provided to reporters during an intermission. The statement read:
Out of respect to Mr. Millers [sic] wishes I will keep this brief. I am aware that he has been involved with many boards and committees. I appreciate his personality. For me it is about leadership and Grady is simply not a leader. The state of moral[e] is awful and the day to day operation of a good working environment has been ignored. I appreciate the calls and e mails and have considered all. I think and speak for myself and I am no one’s puppet. My personality, for those who know me, truly speak for itself. That said, I wish Mr. Miller well.
Later in the meeting, Fleet also added that she met several times with Miller in his office and wasn’t happy afterward.
“You’re asking me to explain to you why I came to this agreement,” she said. “The things I discussed with him in his office, none of them came to fruition, and that bothers me.”
Crook only made a single statement the entire night.
“I think Grady Miller has made his own decision, I agree with it, and I wish him good luck.”
In response, an audience member yelled out, “Did Grady decide to fire himself?”
Cicilline-Buonano was the most passionate councilor in defense of Miller, and introduced several motions to preserve his position, which were defeated 3-2.
Cicilline-Buonano criticized the council, directing her remarks at the three-member majority, for a lack of communication in general.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to come back,” she said, referring to the November elections. “I think [the lack of communication] existed before Grady, and it’ll exist after Grady.”
Wilkens also offered his support for Miller, speaking contritely toward the end of the meeting.
“I do apologize, Grady, for how you’ve been handled in this town,” he said. “You’ve become a friend to me over the past couple years.”
Miller read from a statement toward the end of the open forum.
“I’m really moved by what I’ve heard from the residents here tonight,” he said. “We have an incredible staff. I couldn’t have asked for better employees that we have in the organization. We have a great senior management team.”
He added, “The council and I had some very honest discussions in executive session, and we both thought it was regrettable that things didn’t work out differently.”
Elected and Appointed Official Response
Miller drew strong support from several other elected and appointed town officials, and the council got especially sharp criticism from School Committee chairwoman Tammy McNeiece.
“This can’t be over a $3,000 expenditure in a $50 million budget,” she said. “I think we desire to know why we’re really here.”
Referencing the crowd of 100-plus, as compared to the usual population of about 20, she added, “When there’s clearly a roomful of people who feel very strongly that this is not the right decision, I don’t know how you can’t listen to the people who elected you. It’s clear what the people want.”
In response to McNeiece’s request for a reason for Miller’s dismissal, Hagopian also cited low morale among workers, pending union grievances, and Miller’s own admission that the job was challenging.
“I can see why he thinks it’s challenging, he has town council members trying to micromanage what he’s trying to do,” McNeiece said. “He has people in town hall trying to grasp at straws of evidence.”
McNeiece also had a pointed jab at Crook.
“David, I know you’re going to vote however Glenna tells you how to vote,” she said.
Crook did not comment on or acknowledge her remark.
School Committee member Frank White also offered his support for Miller.
“Grady Miller is a breath of fresh air, and he has all my admiration,” White said. “I have no complaints about Grady Miller.”
Meg Rogers, the chairwoman of the Narragansett Republican Committee, could not attend the full meeting but provided a statement that was read by Town Solicitor Mark McSally.
“A hostile work environment has been created for Mr. Miller in town hall by the actions of some of the members of the town council,” she said. “He is a departure from the in-house, good old boy network that has thrived for generations in our town.”
Audience reaction to the agreement was bitterly negative, with only one person – Mary McCaffrey, – speaking in favor of Miller’s dismissal.
“The only experience I’ve had with the town manager was with that [Oyster Road],” she said. “It was horrifying to think that was how our town government or our town officials treat us.”
She added that by firing Miller, “I absolutely respect all of you on the board.”
All of the other remarks made by the public in the two-plus hours of open forum were in support of Miller.
Former University of Rhode Island accounting professor Richard Vangermeersch apologized to Miller.
“Where does this leave the town? The answer is nowhere. The town council cannot manage this town, and will not allow any professional manager to do so.”
He added, “Grady, you deserve better than this, and I apologize for my request of a professional manager, who is obviously being thrown tonight to the lions, or the wolves.”
One resident said, “There isn’t any hope that what we say will change your minds, yet you represent us.”
“I think we’ve made a huge mistake in what we’ve come up with for a decision,” Gerald Reynolds said.
A real estate agent told the council, “I called him [Miller] when he was living in Arizona and tried to sell him a house, but he wanted to rent, and now I see why.”
He added, “When we replace these council members, could we simply hire him back?”
Another resident asked what provisions there were for impeachment of elected officials in the charter. McSally said there is nothing in the town charter allowing for impeachment by residents.
According to McSally, the agreement allows Miller to use all of his accrued vacation and sick time, which would last until about September. This would then be followed by seven months severance, putting the town’s payout to Miller until about April 2013.
Miller will also receive all of his existing benefits in this time frame. Both Miller and the town are bound by a non-disparagement clause, which is typical for termination agreements between management and town government bodies.
According to the FY 2013 budget booklet, Miller made about $150,000 per year, and his salary is accounted for in FY 2013. This would put the additional cost for the town at anywhere from $137,500 (assuming a full-time manager was hired immediately) to $0 (assuming no manager is hired until April 2013).
Additional expenses would include the job search for a new manager, and the increased salary or stipend for an interim manager.
Closed vs. Open Session
Procedurally, the council met privately in executive session with Miller to discuss his job performance, then came back into open forum to hear from the public and to cast the vote.
The council started the meeting by voting about whether to formally have a meeting. This motion passed by a 3-2 vote (Hagopian, Crook and Fleet for).
The council then took comments about going into executive session to talk about Miller’s job performance. Hagopian noted that Miller did request a closed session.
“We have to respect the wishes of the town manager, who requested a review in a closed executive session,” she said.
Miller confirmed this.
“I did consider [an open session], but in light of the way the agenda is composed I think it makes sense to have an executive session in order to have some meaningful dialogue with the council,” he said.
However, most residents in attendance angrily criticized the decision.
One man asked, “Don’t you think the taxpayers should know the reasons why you’re doing this and not just hold a kangaroo court?”
Another person shouted, “What are you running from? What are you hiding from?”
Following their return from executive session, the council voted to seal the minutes, again by a 3-2 vote.
Chain of Command Falls to Dean Hoxsie
Citing provisions in the town charter, McSally said Police Chief Dean Hoxsie could serve at acting town manager, limited to a term of “15 to 16 days.”
McSally noted that when the town manager is out of town, by charter the police chief fills in. Given the situation, he said that was a workable solution for now.
“It’s a placeholder, you need to take action at some point obviously,” he said.
Cicilline-Buonanno said she thought it was inappropriate to talk about an interim town manager on Thursday night.
“At this point, I’m sad for the town, I don’t really know where we’re going,” she said. “I don’t even think it should be discussed tonight.”
McSally and Town Clerk Anne Irons indicated that it would be hard to get proper notification and advertising for an interim town manager on the agenda for the next council meeting on Monday, June 4.
The council agreed to discuss an interim town manager at a future meeting after June 4, and most likely on June 18.
Election Coming in November
A common theme throughout comments from the public was that the council would pay come November elections. In 2010, Crook was the fifth councilor elected, by just 163 votes more than Douglas McLaughlin. Fleet came in fourth place, with about 80 more votes than Crook.
If anyone managed to take advantage of Thursday’s meeting, it might have been the ninth place finisher in 2010, Chris Laccinole. He grabbed the attention of the crowd with a defense of Miller.
“I’d like to ask all of you, when’s the last time you saw 150 people attend a meeting?” he said. “It was probably the economic development forum, which you [Hagopian] didn’t attend.”
Laccinole specifically asked the council to postpone any full-time hire for town manager after the November elections.
“Whether or not you like it, it’s been perceived by the town employees that you didn’t support him, and that’s created a culture of insubordination,” Laccinole said. “What professional do you think wants to walk into the quagmire you’ve created here?”
McNeiece also lurks in the background, if she chose to run for council. In 2010, she was the leading candidate among school and town council candidates, capturing 3,818 votes – about 800 more than Hagopian, the leading vote-getter for council.