WINDHAM — The chairwoman of the Town Council thinks it’s time for the town manager to retire and indicates the council could fire him if he doesn’t.
Chairwoman Donna Chapman’s comments about longtime manager Tony Plante, which came Wednesday after she reached out to the Lakes Region Weekly, followed the release of a second outside report from Opus Consulting Group looking into discontent within the Public Works Department.
“You look at the two reports – it seems like we’re always reactive instead of proactive,” Chapman said. “I’m saying it all stops at the top.”
Two other councilors, when asked about Chapman’s comments, said they would not support termination if it reached that point. One alleged that the comments illustrate a “vindictive vendetta against town staff,” and the other believes Chapman has wanted Plante gone for some time but was surprised she discussed it publicly.
Public works employees and their Teamsters representative were not satisfied with the first review from consultant William O’Brien, or the town management’s response implementing a resulting corrective action plan. The employees eventually voted no confidence in department and town leadership – including Plante – while calling on the council to intervene.
Chapman said that “serious problems” emerged in the code enforcement office last year with numerous complaints, and said issues have since been brought forth in the Public Works Department. She also highlighted a March incident at Windham High School involving the Windham Police Department and confusion involving a canceled lockdown drill, which was mentioned in the second outside report.
Chapman said she would like to see Plante “have an opportunity to retire due to his length of service.” Plante, who is in his mid-50s, started as manager in 1996.
Reached by phone Wednesday about Chapman’s statements, Plante said he was “not prepared to comment on that at this time.”
Chapman said she hopes there can be a resolution “without it becoming a Standish situation,” referring to the recent firing of the town manager in Windham’s neighboring town to the west.
The Windham town charter requires the support of at least five council members to hire or fire a town manager.
While talking about termination, Chapman said there is “a majority that’s in support” but didn’t directly answer a question about whether she believes there are enough votes to fire Plante.
“It’s not out of the question – because change is needed,” she responded.
The Lakes Region Weekly was able to speak with five other councilors before deadline Wednesday. Vice Chairman Robert Muir was not immediately available.
Councilors Rebecca Cummings and Clayton Haskell would not rule out supporting Plante’s termination, should it come before the council.
“In my mind, nothing is off the table,” said Councilor Rebecca Cummings, who wasn’t comfortable saying whether Plante should retire or be fired. She did add that “a good leader and a good manager would not have this many issues arise within the town.”
Asked whether he would support firing Plante, Haskell said “it will be strongly considered.”
“I think there’s a whole lot of turmoil as far as he’s concerned – in some or all of the departments,” Haskell said.
Councilor Dennis Welch said he had concerns about how the two reports reflect on Plante’s management, but said he likes Plante and generally hasn’t had a problem with his day-to-day leadership.
“If Tony wants to retire, I would support his retirement,” Welch said, noting Plante’s length of service. “I’m not going to comment on termination.”
Councilors Jarrod Maxfield and Tim Nangle, who have both criticized and clashed with council leadership, said they would not support firing Plante.
“There is no cause that this town has to release this town manager,” Maxfield said. “He’s an asset to this town.”
Maxfield said Chapman’s comments about Plante demonstrate Maxfield’s recurring argument that council leadership has a “vindictive vendetta going on against town staff.”
Chapman disagreed with that perspective, saying “we don’t attack town staff.”
Maxfield, who said that he wouldn’t support termination “unless we’re talking about terminating council leadership,” called Plante an “excellent manager” and noted that he was named “Manager of the Year” in 2016 by the Maine Town, City and County Management Association.
Nangle, who acknowledged the Opus report points out issues to tackle that would involve improvement from the town manager, said he would not support Plante’s termination. “I think we would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we were to take that route.”
Nangle believes the O’Brien review initiated by Plante was “never allowed to be completed” by council leadership.
“I think Tony is a very knowledgeable guy,” Nangle said, adding that the manager can’t be everywhere at once and things do occasionally “fall off the plate.” He suggested that council leadership should be making sure issues are brought back to the forefront. He also said that Plante doesn’t delegate and “tries to be everything to everyone.”
“Councilor Chapman has made it clear that she wants (Plante) gone” for some time, he said, but he was “actually very surprised” that she discussed it publicly this week and “kind of sad about that.”
“It’s either Donna’s way or the highway,” Nangle added. “It’s really a disappointing state that this council is in, and it’s just really unfortunate for the town.”
Chapman said she felt the council had given Plante a chance with the first review.
“I don’t want this to turn into a nightmare, but something needs to be done,” she said.
The chairwoman said she’s asked for a special meeting next Tuesday to discuss the matter in executive session “to see where we’re at.”
“We’ve had a couple of discussions in executive session, and we’ll see if anything formal could come for next Tuesday,” she said.
While Plante largely had no comment Wednesday, he was surprised to hear Chapman had discussed information related to executive sessions.
In July, town attorney Stephen Langsdorf sent an email to all Windham town councilors emphasizing the laws that govern executive sessions. At the time, Chapman was concerned Nangle and Maxfield were illegally recording closed meetings, an allegation they both deny.
“I am very concerned that there have been disclosures of statements that were made in executive session,” Langsdorf said in the email this summer, which Chapman previously provided to the Lakes Region Weekly. “It is a violation of law to reveal to anyone what has been said in executive session. It is also illegal to record executive sessions. Please make sure not to violate this important duty you have as councilors.”
Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.