Members of the Wellington Village Council discussed issues with the management of the village during a workshop Thursday, Aug. 22.
Council members met last week with Chris McLean, a consultant from the Center for Leadership Studies, who was hired to evaluate issues in the village that led some council members to call for the firing of Village Manager Paul Schofield.
McLean suggested the workshop as a way for council members to hash out issues, both personal and professional, which have divided the council. Among the issues discussed were concerns with the village’s management.
Some of them were mistakes that had financial ramifications, responses to public records requests, as well as concerns about council members being able to interact with staff.
Councilman Matt Willhite said he thought council members were not being informed of key decisions until after they had been made. He pointed to a recent blunder that saw Wellington unnecessarily paying $183,000 in taxes on the K-Park property, taking Schofield to task for how it was handled.
“He brought it to us at an agenda review meeting on April 8, but on March 27 he executed a check [for the property taxes],” Willhite said. “It wasn’t a budgeted item, and according to our policy, he can only spend up to $25,000 without bringing it before the council.”
Willhite said Schofield, who was not present at the meeting, was able to write the check because of a policy that the manager can meet obligations, such as taxes, without approval from the council.
“Whose fault is it that we didn’t get an exemption on that property?” the councilman asked. “He should have had to bring it before the council. He didn’t bring it to us for two weeks after.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig said she’d heard about the issue before the agenda review. “I agree it was Paul’s fault,” she said. “He messed up. Do I think he should be fired for a $183,000 mistake? No.”
Gerwig said Schofield had saved Wellington far more than $183,000 through good management practices.
But Councilman John Greene, who also said he didn’t know about the issue, said it was about being able to trust Wellington’s manager.
“It goes back to trust,” he said, adding that he was concerned there were no plans to change the process so the same type of mistake didn’t happen again. “I haven’t seen any change.”
Mayor Bob Margolis said he had a concern about items requested by residents under public records laws that were found to be missing.
“There was a gentleman who put in a request for all the papers and everything on the dais at council meetings,” he said. “One of those was Paul’s journal.”
Margolis said that shortly after the request was made, someone broke into Schofield’s office and stole the journal.
“The only thing that was taken was the journal,” Margolis said. “His laptop was sitting right on top of his journals.”
In the wake of the theft, Margolis said he was concerned that staff didn’t review security tapes or records of employee swipe cards.
“That really concerned me,” he said. “If there is someone breaking into a public building, we need to do something about it.”
Gerwig said it sounded like Margolis was accusing Schofield.
“What you’re suggesting is that Paul destroyed the journal to get rid of it?” she asked.
Margolis said he was concerned about the response to the theft, but Gerwig pressed him. “You think Paul destroyed the journal?” she asked.
“Yes, I do,” Margolis said, but added that it was the lack of response that concerned him.
Willhite said it wasn’t the first theft. “John [Greene] had his iPad stolen off his desk and there was no follow-up,” he said.
Willhite also pointed to concerns that cameras with recording devices were installed near council member offices. “We have all these cameras we put in, but we can’t provide videos,” he said. “We still haven’t gotten copies of the tapes.”
Margolis also said he thought there was a lack of communication, with council members being unable to reach out to staff.
But Gerwig disagreed.
“Paul [Schofield] has never said we can’t talk to staff,” she said. “He’s said staff is available anytime we need. If he said that to the mayor, I’d like to know.”
Margolis said he had told him that.
“So you’re saying he’s telling you one thing and us another?” Gerwig asked.
Margolis said that might be the case. “I think he tells people what he thinks they want to hear,” he said.
Vice Mayor Howard Coates said he believes the issue comes down to a disagreement between council members about how strong a role the manager should have.
“I think there is a fundamental disagreement between some council members as to how the village should be run,” he said. “I take to heart the idea of a strong manager. It was never the intent that this council should micro-manage how the village is run.”
Having council members interact directly with staff could be seen as interfering, Coates said.
“When we go to lower-level staff, there is a high level of intrinsic and institutional intimidation,” Coates said. “There is a view from many village staff members that their jobs are in jeopardy… They’re in jeopardy because this council put a bull’s-eye on them. Whether that’s a proper perception or not, it’s a perception that is a direct result of having frequent contact with staff.”
But Margolis said council members should be able to go directly to staff. “I think we have every right to ask questions of staff,” he said.
Further, Margolis said he’d spoken to employees who believed they now had the freedom to do their jobs without fear of repercussions.
“I have had a number of senior staff members who have come to my office and said, ‘Thank you for letting us do our jobs. In the past, when I’d try to do my job, I’d get a phone call if I did something that upset certain people in the village,’” Margolis said.
Greene said he typically interacts with staff only to get more information on village issues.
“If I get all my information from one source, I have to trust that the source will provide me with all the facts, not just certain facts that may fit one point of view or someone’s agenda,” he said.
Greene was concerned that staff has to report back on conversations with council members. But Coates said that was part of the chain of command.
“Paul is responsible for the information his staff provides us,” he said. “I would think he would want to know.”
Margolis asked whether McLean had gotten feedback from staff members about the atmosphere in Wellington.
McLean said staff members were concerned about their jobs.
“They said that this divisive culture is affecting [them],” the consultant said. “They don’t know whether they’ll have a job. It certainly has permeated that there is a lack of trust that goes all the way down.”
Gerwig asked whether the fear was because of Schofield or council members.
“I think it’s the lack of stability,” McLean said. “I don’t think it’s directed at Paul.”
Council members also addressed concerns that in the wake of discussions about firing Schofield, several senior staff members were offered severance packages, with one accepting it.
“My perception is we have a village manager who walked into various offices and said, ‘Hey, if I get voted out, I want to make sure you have an opportunity to have a parachute,’” Greene said.
But Coates had a different opinion. “My opinion was that Paul could be terminated because certain members of this council can’t get at certain staff members to terminate them,” he said. “The only way they can accomplish that is to get rid of Paul and then get rid of staff.”
Greene said Schofield had told him personally he was prepared to leave Wellington.
“He said to me, ‘John, I didn’t think I’d last this long after the election… I’m ready to go,’” Greene said, recounting his interpretation of a conversation with Schofield. “I thought I might have been doing him a favor, that he was asking me to let him have his package and walk away gracefully.”
McLean said he thought the discussion should be had again with Schofield present to receive feedback.
Coates agreed, and asked whether the council could create a set of standards by which to measure the performance of the village manager.
“We’ve never subjected him to an annual review process,” Coates said. “I think one of the constructive things that can come out of this is to formulate evaluation criteria so that I can feel we fairly evaluated him.”
ABOVE: The Wellington Village Council.