December 12, 2012

Old Orchard council to mull manager's fate

Councilors will meet with town attorney in private, but Town Manager Mark Pearson, on the job for just this year, asks that complaints against him be publicly aired.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – A divided Town Council will meet privately Wednesday night to discuss the future of Town Manager Mark Pearson, but the reasons for councilors' concerns remain unclear.

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Mark Pearson

Sharri MacDonald

Chairwoman Sharri MacDonald scheduled the executive session to discuss the council's legal rights and responsibilities with the town attorney and, for the first time as a board, address concerns about Pearson.

Pearson, who started his job in February, has asked that the meeting on whether to terminate or continue his contract be held in public.

On Friday, MacDonald asked Pearson to resign as a professional courtesy, she said.

She said the council must discuss a "litany of issues" that councilors have raised about Pearson's performance, but would not say what the issues are or who raised them.

Pearson said he will not resign and he asked for the public meeting because "there is absolutely nothing to hide."

Under state law, anyone who is charged or investigated may ask that any investigation or hearing be held in public.

The Old Orchard Beach town charter requires the town manager to attend all council meetings except those at which the manager's removal is considered, apparently contradicting state law.

Along with asking that Wednesday's meeting be open to the public, Pearson requested the presence of human resources employee Tammy Lambert, former interim Finance Director Maura Halkiotis, accounts-payable clerk France Beaulieu and Finance Director Diane Asanza.

In his written request, Pearson also asked that town Auditor Ron Smith "be present on the basis of the investigation or complaint because of the financial nature."

Several councilors have said they are concerned about findings in the town's annual audit but have not elaborated.

Councilor Michael Coleman, however, has said he suspects Pearson's detractors are blaming him for a pending auditor's report that identifies irregularities in the town's accounting practices, even though Pearson was on the job for only five months of the year-long auditing period. The report has not been released.

Pearson upset some when he started to address shoddy management in Town Hall, tried to reduce the town's $1.8 million in delinquent taxes, got rid of inconsistent personnel policies and approved a special law enforcement team to curb narcotics trafficking in town, Coleman said.

Pearson is Old Orchard Beach's fourth town manager since 2003. In August, the Town Council approved a two-year contract that pays him a $96,000 annual salary and $5,000 a year in lieu of health insurance.

MacDonald voted against the contract, saying she didn't think Pearson had been vetted enough to determine whether he was a good fit, according to minutes from the meeting Aug. 21.

Town Councilor Robert Quinn also voted against the contract, because it contained a pay raise. He said Pearson's performance has been "excellent."

The council includes three members who were elected last month. It has not discussed Pearson's job performance since August, so several councilors are questioning the reason for Wednesday's meeting.

"Prior to (MacDonald) calling me stating she had asked the town manager to resign, I had no knowledge that this was happening," Quinn said in an email. "There were two other councilors also unaware of what was going on."

Quinn, who called Pearson's job performance impressive, said "this town manager dumping is supported by three councilors with less than three weeks of service."

He said the effort to remove Pearson "works to polarize the council, citizens and town staff, and harms our image as a community."

Robin Dayton, a longtime councilor who supports Pearson, said it was inappropriate for MacDonald to consult with the town attorney -- and incur legal fees -- without consulting first with the rest of the council. Laura Bolduc, who was elected in November but served previously on the council, said she has "grave concerns" about issues related to Pearson.

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