David MacLean, who was fired this month as Portland’s social services director, is one of nine department or division leaders to leave their jobs within the last year.

Unlike MacLean, who said this week he is planning a legal challenge to his recent termination, most of the recently departed city employees appear to have left on their own accord to pursue other job opportunities and did not leave without advance notice under questionable circumstances.

An exception is Michael A. Russell, who abruptly left his job on March 1 as the director of the city’s Permitting and Inspections Department, according to documents provided to the Press Herald in response to a public records request. Russell would later receive a settlement and agree not to disparage the city.

Top administrative posts in the midst of transition at City Hall include those two, as well as the assistant city manager, police chief, health and human services director, social services administrator and the top two administrators in the planning department.

City Manager Jon Jennings declined to discuss the turnover, but City Hall Communications Director Jessica Grondin said there was no common underlying reason for the departures, which she said are common in a workforce of about 1,400 people.

“There is nothing unusual or cause for concern about the recent rate of turnover,” Grondin said in written statement. “While we will certainly miss our colleagues who had a vast amount of institutional knowledge, change, along with new perspectives and ideas, is a good thing. … Each person has had their own unique circumstances surrounding their decision to move on.”

While the rate of turnover in top positions at City Hall appears higher than in the past, there is no comparative data. City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who has been on the council for more than 21 years, said he is not concerned about the rate of turnover.

“It doesn’t give me great pause or great concern,” Mavodones said. “We have a large workforce in the city of Portland and people come and go for various reasons. It kind of happens in the normal course of business.”

Portland has a $207 million municipal budget and roughly 1,400 employees working in 19 departments and many more divisions.

Portland isn’t alone in coping with departures, according to Eric Conrad, the communications director for the Maine Municipal Association, an advocacy organization for towns and cities.

Conrad said many communities are experiencing turnover, primarily due to an aging workforce and retirements. Those jobs are getting harder to fill, he said, which is why the MMA is helping to recruit younger workers into public service.

“It’s probably the No. 1 issue communities are dealing with right now,” Conrad said, adding that a strong economy also could be a factor. “When the economy is good, there’s more competition for talented people. That’s when lucrative offers come along.”

Betsy Oulton, who provides consulting services for about eight Maine towns without human resources departments, said that despite strong benefits packages provided by cities and towns, some public workers may move to the private sector for more money, to find a better work-life balance, or to escape the steady political or public pressure.

“There are plenty of organizations out there looking for ideal candidates in management positions, so the opportunities are there for those who are looking for a better balance,” Oulton said.

Michael Russell speaks to the Portland City Council in December. This image was taken from the video stream.

While most of the recent departures from Portland City Hall appeared to be voluntary and routine, Michael Russell’s 15-year career in the city ended in March under more mysterious circumstances.

Russell, who earned $115,800 a year as permitting and inspections director, was paid about $10,600 for unused vacation and sick time, according to records obtained by the Press Herald under the Maine’s Freedom of Access Act..

Nearly two months later – and weeks after the Press Herald requested information about his departure – Russell and Jennings signed a separation and non-disparagement agreement, which included an additional $30,000 payment for “transition costs.”

The agreement, signed by the city on April 29 and provided to Press Herald this week, prohibits city officials and Russell from disparaging one another. And it prevents Russell from disclosing the terms of his separation agreement.

The agreement says that Russell “resigned his position voluntarily” and that his continued employment was “not the best fit” for either him or the city. The city also agreed to pay up to an additional $5,000 for an employment placement service to help Russell find another job. And the city also agreed not to challenge an application for unemployment benefits, should Russell seek them.

Russell was overseeing a department that was created in 2016 and was constantly evolving. The city has been working to improve customer service and efficiency in the city’s permitting department, which has been a source of complaints for homeowners and developers alike.

Heather Brown Photo courtesy of the city of Portland

The department also has overseen the new housing safety inspection program and collects registration fees for long-term and short-term rentals. And in recent years, it has taken over business licensing from the city clerk’s office. It has a budget of nearly $1.8 million and a staff of 28 full-time employees.

Efforts to reach Russell were unsuccessful.

Keri Ouellette, a former permit intake and review manager, has been filling that position on an acting basis since Russell’s departure. A city spokesperson says a final decision on the future of that position will be made after a new assistant city manager starts next month.

That new assistant city manager is Heather Brown, a Windham native who served in a variety of roles in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in Maryland. She will step into the job  on June 10 and earn nearly $139,000 a year.

The number two post at City Hall has been vacant since former Assistant City Manager Michael Sauschuck, also the city’s former police chief, stepped down in February to become  Gov. Janet Mills’ public safety commissioner.

The city also is nearing a decision on who will replace Sauschuck as permanent police chief. Vern Malloch is serving as the acting police chief and is one of three finalists for the position.

Mona Bector Press Herald file photo

Portland’s other assistant manager, Mona Bector, left last summer, citing differences of opinion with City Manager Jon Jennings.

Bector’s job as a second assistant manager was replaced with a newly created post called the director of innovation and performance management.

Lena Geraghty, a Portland resident who previously served as a senior adviser for John Hopkins University’s Center for Government Excellence, assumed that job in March.  Geraghty, who earns nearly $93,000, will oversee Portland’s  smart cities initiatives, such as public wifi, smart traffic signals and automated vehicles.

At the same time, Hannah Pickering became the city’s new information technology director. Pickering, who earns nearly $126,500, took over for Dan Boutilier, a longtime city employee who is retiring.

Other administrators have recently resigned for new jobs, or retired, including a number of the top positions in city’s planning office and in its human  services department.

Jeff Levine City of Portland photo

Jeff Levine, the city’s director of Planning and Urban Development, said last week that he will be stepping down this summer to teach a course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s graduate program and do some consulting work in Maine on the side. Levine said he has been working in municipal governments for 20 years and that it was a difficult decision for him to leave.

“It’s not an opportunity that comes around every day,” he said.

Levine has overseen the department for seven years and during a period of extraordinary growth and development in the city. He said the work is challenging and rewarding, despite the criticism he receives from people who believe Portland is changing for the worse.

“Angst and anger comes with the territory,” he said. “Change is hard. People are concerned and active and that’s what I like about Portland.”

Another top official in the department, Tuck O’Brien, left his job as planning director in January to take a job a Tilson, a Portland-based technology firm. His position is now filled by Christine Grimando, who was previously a senior planner with the city.

Among the changes in social services, Dawn Stiles resigned as director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department on Jan. 11 after four years on the job. She gave the city two-months notice and her last day was March 7.

Dawn Stiles Press Herald file photo

Kristen Dow is serving as acting director.

Aaron Geyer, the city’s General Assistance program manager, is serving as the acting social services administrator after the firing of MacLean, who is disputing the city’s reasoning for his dismissal.

City documents show MacLean was fired May 15 after spending 13 weeks on paid administrative leave. Officials said the decision was based on performance issues raised by employees and managers, while MacLean’s lawyer said it was because he raised concerns about he city’s plans for a new 150-bed homeless shelter.

MacLean’s attorney said the ousted administrator would not answer questions in light of the potential litigation.

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