What’s the Scoop with the City Manager’s Job?

by Nat Frothingham and Carla Occaso

In a recent status update interview between The Bridge’s publisher Nat Frothingham and Montpelier Mayor John Hollar, they discussed the topic of City Manager Bill Fraser’s employment contract. It turns out, according to further research, the six-member city council is split three to three about whether to renew Fraser’s contract. Hollar is the tie-splitting opinion, and he has sided with nonrenewal. The Bridge reached out to other council members and also to Fraser to see what is going on. The news of Fraser’s employment status came to light following a story published October 28 written by Eric Blaisdell for the Times Argus newspaper.

The Bridge: Can you comment about what’s been happening with the employment status of City Manager Bill Fraser?

John Hollar: Bill Fraser had requested input from the council on his performance. That precipitated the discussion last week, although it is likely we would have had a meeting in any event to discuss his contract.

This has been a very difficult issue for the council. We have been sharply divided for more than a year as to whether or not to renew Bill’s contract. In order to be successful and effective, the manager needs to have the confidence of the majority of the council and that has not been the case for a long time. A significant reason for me (for not renewing his contract) is the need to have a manager who enjoys the support of the council.

Councilors have shared a variety of concerns with the manager over the past year. Some of these issues have improved. Others have not. I sided with those who chose not to renew the contract.

The Bridge: How specific can you be about the pluses or minuses of his performance?

Hollar: I’m not comfortable about going into the specifics of a personnel matter. I don’t think it’s respectful of Bill or good for the City to have a public debate about his job performance.

This is not a position with lifetime tenure. Our charter authorizes the council by majority vote to terminate a city manager and our contract with Bill provides the same terms.

It’s unfortunate that some very personal attacks have been made about the decision. I don’t think negative personal attacks should have a place in this discussion or in our community.

(Editor’s Note: The above section was part of a longer interview by Nat Frothingham with Mayor Hollar. The rest of Hollar’s Q&A, regarding other topics, is on page 7.)

Following this interview, The Bridge asked the six city councilors and Fraser to weigh in by email. Below is input from those who chose to respond:

Councilor Dona Bate:

Bate told The Bridge she did not have time to fully answer, and referred us to another news outlet, but not before saying, “I would add that if the council followed Bill’s example of leadership, we would have a council that worked together as a team, which would welcome innovative management ideas.”

In an article published by vtdigger.org on October 27, Bate said, “‘It’s against the law to do what they did. The process … was not a fair, due process. Three council members and the mayor had discussions, conversations, outside the open meeting process, and made this decision, and then shared it with the rest of us after the fact.’”

“Bate learned of her peers’ intention to seek a new city manager on Monday, the same day Hollar informed Fraser. Bate accused Hollar of orchestrating the decision. Hollar said he had brought concerns of his own to both council members and Fraser about a year ago, but said in recent months council members had approached him to express their own concerns.”

Councilor Anne Watson:

“I think the council should renew Bill’s contract because he has managed the city well for more than two decades. He continues to serve the city expertly and with integrity, and we continue to make progress on a lot of really exciting projects. Every council meeting we review the goals of the city council, and you can see the progress that’s been made on each one, and while some goals take longer to achieve than others, we’re very clearly making progress on all fronts.”

Councilor Jean Olson

“As the newest elected city councilor, my vision has consistently included grand list growth, population expansion and creating opportunity for transformational projects building on Montpelier’s significant strengths. Effective leadership is based on the right skills at the right time in an organization’s development. As someone who is looking forward, I believe we will benefit from a creator/innovator at this time more than a maintainer. Neither skill set is inherently better than the other; the true value is based on timing. I want us to maximize our opportunity for the future, therefore, I voted for change in our leadership.”

Councilor Jessica Edgarly Walsh:

“City council’s difficult task in contracting any manager is to match the manager’s skills, experience and leadership style with the needs of the community, and the vision of the elected council. Few managers serve a single community for as long as Bill has served Montpelier, and he has led our community through much — from emergency management of floods and a rock slide, to development projects on Stone Cutter’s Way and the transition to our central biomass heating plant.”

“Still, Montpelier continues to lose population and struggles to add housing, while nearby communities like Waterbury, Berlin, and Middlesex maintain or grow. I believe a change in City Hall leadership will help our community make some of the changes we want, but have struggled to attain.”

From Council Member Justin Turcotte:

Thank you taking the time to reach out to me on this matter.  It is not one that I take lightly.  Out of respect for Bill’s future I have been reluctant to make public statements about the factors that have contributed to my decision not to renew his contract. I would also like to be clear that this decision was not because of illegal behavior on the city manager’s part and is not in anyway a reflection on city staff.

I am glad that that folks want to better understand how we arrived at our decision, it means they care about our city. The information that was used in the public and private evaluations I have participated in, is personal to the city manager and part of a typical human resources process. 

There is an understandable amount of anger, and mud slinging going on right now and out of respect for my fellow councillors the mayor, and the city manager, I am choosing not to fan those flames. Rest assured that after being directly involved, listening to the residents of my district, consulting with other community members who have been directly involved, and attempting to work with the city manager during the last contract renewal, this is a decision that I came to on my own.

For the benefit of city staff, residents and the city manager my focus is on our transition timeline and making sure city staff has the support they need as we move forward.

City Manager William Fraser:

“It’s been my honor and privilege to serve as city manager in Montpelier for over two decades. I would certainly like to continue with the good work that our team is doing and with the exciting projects that are on the way. I am proud of my work here. While I disagree with certain statements of fact, I do agree that it is important for the council and manager to work well together. The majority of the current council told me last week that their intention is not to renew my contract. Until we reach final resolution of my status, I will continue to work professionally for the best interests of the city.”

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