WESTBROOK — Two City Hall department heads have been on leaves of absence since late last year, and the city is not saying when, or whether, they will return.

The administrators have not been involved in shaping the city’s 2019 budget, which would significantly redefine one of their jobs.

Westbrook officials have declined to explain why Director of Human Resources Jennifer Ogden and Director of Community Services Maria Huntress were on paid administrative leave for three to four months this past winter. The city says the details are confidential personnel matters and that there are no records of disciplinary action, documents that would be public under state law.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said both were taken off administrative leave in late March, and are still employees of Westbrook. However, the two women have apparently not returned to work, and Bryant declined to comment on their current status.

Ogden said in a written message that she is now on maternity leave. However, it is unclear if she will come back to City Hall. A 2019 budget proposal given preliminary approval Monday would restructure her department and dramatically change her role.

Huntress declined to comment on her leave. Another employee has been serving as the acting director of community services.

Westbrook City Council President Brendan Rielly said he has no information about why the two women were on leave because the council is barred from involvement in personnel matters.

“At different times during the budget process, I had asked if the department heads had been involved in any way with the preparation of these budgets, and they had not been, and that’s concerning,” Rielly said Friday.

Bryant said the two leaves of absence were unrelated to each other, and neither was related to a criminal matter. The Portland Press Herald filed a public records request for any records of final disciplinary action taken against either employee, and the city responded that those records do not exist, indicating that they have not been officially disciplined.

Mayor Mike Sanphy, who has the power to hire and fire employees, deferred specific questions about the department heads to Bryant.

“I can’t say too much about that,” Sanphy said.

Ogden was hired as the human resources director in 2016. She was on paid administrative leave from Dec. 4 to March 26, and she said in a written message that she is now on maternity leave until the end of June. Her weekly salary is about $1,737, which translates to more than $90,300 annually.

But her job could look different when the new fiscal year starts on July 1.

Until recently, the human resources department had a staff of four to oversee more than 750 city and school employees. Earlier this year, a payroll specialist shifted from human resources to finance. But the biggest change came when the Westbrook School Department decided to hire its own human resources director for the coming year.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said he was satisfied with the service the school department is getting through the city, but he felt it was time to separate.

“We have 471 employees, and we felt like we needed our own human resources department to focus singly on the needs of the school employees,” Lancia said. “Schools operate slightly differently than municipalities or the private sector.”

The school department contributed nearly $150,000 to the combined human resources department budget, so that revenue will now be lost to the city. The workload for the department will also be considerably less. So next year, the city proposed a hybrid position – half human resources director, half assistant city administrator. That person would oversee two staff members in the human resources department, but he or she would also work on other city business in the mayor’s office.

Another employee in the human resources department directed questions to Bryant.

In her message, Ogden said she would prefer to keep her name out of the media and declined to comment on her leave.

“Long term, this position was not designed to be a success as it is stretched too thin with little resources,” she wrote. “I am out until the end of June and will consider then whether the role the City proposes due to these changes continues to suit me professionally.”

Lancia said the schools were happy with Ogden’s work, and Bryant said the proposed changes in the department are unrelated to her leave. The city administrator declined to say whether Ogden would return or reapply to the hybrid position in next year’s budget, saying the City Council has not yet given final approval to the plan. But at a budget review meeting April 23, the city administrator seemed to suggest Westbrook would need to seek other candidates for the job.

“We’re going to have to do some aggressive promoting and recruiting for the position,” Bryant said.

Huntress, whose last name was formerly Dorn, was hired as the director of community services in 2010, according to an American Journal report at the time. The department oversees the Westbrook Community Center and its many programs. Huntress was on paid administrative leave from Nov. 6 to March 26. Her weekly salary is about $1,529, which translates to roughly $79,500 annually.

But it is unclear whether she is coming back to work in the community services department. Reached via phone Friday, Huntress would not comment on her leave and ended the call. Last week, she did not attend the City Council’s budget review, and the members heard from other community services staff, including Acting Director Greg Post. Post did not respond to a call or email for comment Friday. On Tuesday, a staff person who answered the phone at the community center said Huntress has not been at work for months, and he did not know when or if she would return.

Rielly said he has heard from residents who are concerned about the absence of the two department heads.

“Particularly with the community services position, because that’s a slightly more public-facing position than the human resources director is, I’ve been getting a lot of emails, questions, phone calls from citizens,” he said.

It is frustrating not to have answers, Rielly said.

“We pass budgets and we set policy and then we don’t have any control over the personnel who carry that out,” Rielly said. “So that can be very frustrating, because when citizens come to us with questions on that, I always hate to pass the buck. If someone comes to me with a concern or a question, I’d like to be able to answer it.”

The City Council voted 4-2 in favor of the $68.5 million budget proposal during first reading Monday. A second reading and final vote is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 7 at Westbrook High School. The school budget would then go to voters June 12.

The proposed spending plan is a 6 percent increase from the current year. If approved, the property tax rate would go from $18.88 per $1,000 of assessed value to $19.93. On a home assessed at $190,000, that increase amounts to roughly $200 annually.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

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