Some question legality of Paris town manager appointment

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PARIS — Despite questions raised by residents surrounding the legality of former Selectman Vic Hodgkins’ appointment as the new Paris town manager, he remains confident that the process has been aboveboard.

NEW TOWN MANAGER - Former Paris Selectman Vic Hodgkins was appointed new town manager of Paris on Monday night after a seven-month search, though some residents have questioned the legality of his appointment.
NEW TOWN MANAGER – Former Paris Selectman Vic Hodgkins was appointed new town manager of Paris on Monday night after a seven-month search, though some residents have questioned the legality of his appointment.

At the Monday, July 25 selectmen’s meeting, the board accepted Hodgkins’ resignation as selectman and then appointed him as the next town manager, beginning Sept. 6.

Voting for his appointment were Selectboard Chairman Mike Risica and selectmen Janet Jamison and Scott Buffington. Selectman Chris Summers abstained, saying, “ I don’t feel like I have enough information to make a rational choice in this matter.”

Selectmen then voted 3-1 to approve Hodgkins’ contract, with Summers casting the only dissenting vote, as he wanted legal review of the document.

As for the questions surrounding legality of Hodgkins’ appointment, there is a state law governing municipal officers who become employees of their town or city.

The state statute regarding prohibited appointments reads:

“No municipal officer, during the term for which that officer has been elected and for one year thereafter, may be appointed to any civil office of profit or employment position of the municipality, which was created or the compensation of which was increased by the action of the municipal officers during the officer’s term.”

Hodgkins announced in April that he would apply for the town manager position after the first round of candidates failed to yield a new top administrator. He said then he would recuse himself from the process.

“From the moment I thought I wanted to do this, I have been extremely ethical throughout this entire process,” Hodgkins said.

He noted he didn’t create the town manager position, nor did he vote on former Town Manager Amy Bernard’s pay increase, which happened before he was elected to the selectboard. Bernard left Paris in December 2015 to become the Newry town administrator and an extensive search for a replacement has taken place over the last seven months.

But at the May 23 selectmen’s meeting, Hodgkins voted to place $35,000 in contingency, which could be used for the next town manager’s salary and benefits package, among other things, according to a recording of the meeting.

“My thought was to put $15,000 in the contingency account to use those for unforeseen future budget emergencies,” then-Interim Town Manager Sawin Millett said, “and – I am just openly transparent about this – we don’t know what it’s going to cost for the next town manager’s salary and benefit plan, we don’t know what we’re looking at for legal costs, which has strained our budget this year, and we know we’ve got some legal issues pending, including the collective bargaining process, we don’t have any money in the budget for any cost of living increases, etc.”

At that meeting, Hodgkins said he wanted to put more money in contingency than what Millett recommended – between $25,000 and $30,000 – but didn’t want to earmark it for anything specific, according to the recording.

“I think there are plenty of variables out there and I think the board should give itself maximum flexibility going forward through this next year,” he said at the meeting. “For me, I like having a nice emergency account for unforeseen situations and if we don’t spend it, we don’t spend it. It doesn’t mean two years from now we can’t take that money out of there and help buy a plow truck.”

On Tuesday, July 26, Hodgkins commented on his remarks at the May meeting and reasons for doing so.

“We did put monies in the contingency fund – one could be for pay raises and there are several factors [why] we may need to dip into contingencies,” Hodgkins said, listing off the same reasons Millett did. “It was very prudent of the board to put money into contingencies. I am very comfortable …  looking really anybody in the eye and saying, ‘We did the right thing.’”

Risica also spoke about the May 23 meeting and said the selectboard is “not hiding anything.”

“We were going to hire the guy from Virginia and he was demanding a lot more money so that’s why we put the money into the contingency because we didn’t know exactly where we were going to be,” the selectboard chairman said. “Vic was also out of the mix at that point.”

Selectmen offered a job to a candidate from Virginia, who accepted the offer and then rescinded after his family decided to remain in the South.

Prior to the Monday, June 25 selectmen’s meeting, there were two executive sessions held on Monday, July 18, according to current Interim Town Manager Bill Guindon, one of which “wasn’t properly announced.” That one was for a personnel matter, which he attended.

As for the second one, when Guindon left, he said Jamison, Buffington, Summers and Hodgkins were there.

“It had to do with the town manager,” Guindon said, adding he wasn’t a part of that meeting and hasn’t been a part of the process.

Risica explained Hodgkins’ presence at the executive session.

“He was invited to the executive session on that day because they wanted to give a selectboard member … the chance to ask any questions he wanted to ask,” Risica said, who was out of town during the executive sessions.

When Bernard left Paris, her salary was $63,003 after selectmen gave her a $4,000 raise in March 2015 and extended her contract through 2017. Her salary and total benefits package was $86,465, according to Town Clerk Liz Knox. In the recently approved fiscal 2017 budget, the salary for the position of town manager remained $63,003.

Hodgkins will get paid a starting salary of $65,000 and after a six-month probationary period, his salary will be bumped to $67,600, according to his contract. The probationary period ends March 6, 2017. Hodgkins is eligible for a raise every year based on an annual performance evaluation conducted by selectmen.

His contract is for five years, expiring on Sept. 5, 2021. Hodgkins is eligible to enroll in the town’s health insurance plan, the town will cover 100 percent of dental and provide life insurance for one times the amount of his salary.

The contract stipulates that Hodgkins must remain a resident of Paris while being town manager. He also will receive 20 vacation days a year. As for a severance package, if the town terminates his employment after a year and beyond, he would receive four months salary and insurance.

Hodgkins said he isn’t going to enroll in the town’s insurance plan.

“At the end of the day, by hiring me in this position you are saving money in this administrative budget,” he said.

Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for Maine Municipal Association, declined to comment on the situation because Paris is a member of MMA.

MMA’s website has a guide for those running for public office and describes situations where “official participation is prohibited.”

“Prohibited appointments include those paid positions off-limits to those who created them or who increased their compensation (You raised the police chief’s salary and then applied for the job.),” the website reads.

Paris’ town attorney Matt Parasevich of Berstein and Shur could not be reached for comment.

As for filling Hodgkins’ selectboard seat, selectmen can call a town meeting to elect someone to fill the vacancy, according to state statute. Risica said he is going to check the town calendar with Knox about scheduling a special election to fill the seat.

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