Ex-Harrington planner: City’s mayor, manager violated the law

HARRINGTON — A former Harrington city planner who says he was unceremoniously and wrongly fired earlier this year is accusing the city’s manager and mayor of misusing their offices for personal gain and committing crimes in the process.

Jeremy Rothwell, who worked for the city from December 2016 until June 19, on Monday requested an independent investigation into actions by Mayor Anthony Moyer and Manager Don Williams.

Mr. Rothwell laid out the allegations in a 13-page letter he presented to City Council Monday night, in which he and several individuals urged members to review the information he presented, including documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Among the alleged misconduct: violation of the Delaware Whistleblowers’ Protection Act, flagrant flouting of city code, time theft, bullying employees and use of office for personal gain.

“The Mayor and the City Manager abused their power on multiple occasions and the public has a strong interest in having honest and truthful leaders in their City’s government,” Mr. Rothwell, who is now employed by Smyrna, wrote in the letter.

Mr. Moyer did not directly address the allegations during the meeting, and he declined comment when asked afterward. Mr. Williams is currently at a conference in Tennessee.

Inappropriate use’ of office
Hired almost three years ago as the city’s first full-time planner, Mr. Rothwell was in charge of “reviewing all site plan, subdivision, variance, conditional use, and annexation applications to ensure compliance with” Harrington’s comprehensive plan and code, according to the city’s website.

In that role for the self-proclaimed “Hub of Delaware” and its 3,600 citizens, he clashed with the mayor and city manager on numerous occasions.

Mr. Moyer, elected in 2013 and reelected four years later, mostly has ceremonial duties. According to the city charter, he presides over city council and recommends committee appointments but cannot vote unless there is a tie. Like the council members, the mayor is paid $50 per meeting.

According to Mr. Rothwell, Mr. Moyer rented out space in a building he owns without the proper permits and failed to meet city standards for upkeep.

In August 2017, he allegedly allowed a potential business owner to set up in 40 Commerce St., a property that belongs to him, despite failing to first obtain permits for renovations and to change the zoning from residential to commercial. Mr. Rothwell said he confronted Mr. Williams about the lack of permits, only to be told the mayor claimed the city planner informed him he did not need permits.

The mayor continued to assert this, even after Mr. Rothwell produced documents contradicting his statement, according to the letter presented Monday night.

Mr. Moyer then allegedly pressured the city building inspector into withholding a stop work order, which Mr. Rothwell termed a “gross and inappropriate use of the authority and influence of both the Mayor and City Manager.”

Mayor Anthony Moyer

Another issue involving the building at 40 Commerce St. later arose, the letter says. The property was in violation of the International Property Maintenance Code, with chipped paint and siding that is peeling or missing entirely, Mr. Rothwell wrote.

According to the letter, the blemishes were not rectified, nor were any fines issued, despite an outside complaint and the city manager pledging to deal with the matter.

The mayor also allegedly used his status to bend the rules regarding residential property inspections. In early 2018, according to Mr. Rothwell, he missed four mandatory property visits by the code enforcement officer — two more than needed for the city to issue a fine.

After the code enforcement officer informed Mr. Williams, he was instructed not to penalize Mr. Moyer, Mr. Rothwell’s narrative states. An inspection was eventually held on a Saturday — the only such one to take place on a weekend — more than a month after the other rental units in the city had been examined.

“This represents blatant ethical misconduct by both the Mayor and City Manager using their positions of authority to explicitly and implicitly intimidate a City employee to not issue a fine (and to provide special treatment to the Mayor by coming into work on a Saturday),” Mr. Rothwell wrote.

In March 2018, Mr. Moyer unilaterally blocked a planned annexation of two building lots, according to the letter.

Mr. Rothwell said he discussed the annexation with the city solicitor and received the go-ahead from him, but at a city council meeting, Mr. Moyer informed council members the property was not eligible, urged them to vote down the request and denied Mr. Rothwell an opportunity to speak.

Mr. Moyer’s decision, Mr. Rothwell alleged, was due to a personal vendetta against the developer who sought the annexation. That developer, Blue Hen Construction owner Darrin Simpson, was allegedly in the mayor’s crosshairs over their shared interest in running for an open state representative seat.

According to a story told by Mr. Simpson and relayed by Mr. Rothwell in the letter, the mayor was heckled at a local Republican Party meeting the week before the city council session, which Mr. Moyer blamed Mr. Simpson for.

The annexation incident prompted Mr. Rothwell to consider resigning — not for the first time — but he did not do so because no related positions were available elsewhere.

Also in 2018, according to the letter, Mr. Moyer used a trailer owned by Harrington Parks and Recreation for personal use, driving it to New York. In the process, he received an E-ZPass toll fine for $55.70, which he billed to the city, the letter states.

City documents indicate Harrington did indeed pay $55.70 in April 2018 to the collection agency New Jersey uses to issue fines for E-ZPass violations.

‘Disturbing trends’
In addition to the allegations of misconduct against the mayor, Mr. Rothwell said Mr. Williams is also guilty of numerous infringements of city policy and state law.

“The City Manager throughout his employment has shown disturbing trends in his work ethic that constitutes fraud,” Mr. Rothwell wrote in his letter. “The City Manager would come into work late and/or leave work early almost every day. Since my office window and desk directly faced the rear employee entrance to City Hall, I can testify to having witnessed the City Manager consistently coming into work hours late and/or leaving work hours early on a regular basis.”

“From June 20th to September 13th he claimed to have worked 474 hours, but actually worked only 375 hours. This discrepancy of 99 hours at $31.97 per hour (based on his initial contract salary of $66,500 per year) amounts to $3,165.14 in fraudulently-claimed wages in only a 3-month period, and I can testify under oath to having witnessed the same behavior throughout his entire tenure as City Manager,” he wrote.

Jeremy Rothwell

“Under Delaware law, theft of anything greater than $1,500 is classified as a felony. The fact that the Mayor signed the City Manager’s timesheets despite knowing of this behavior makes him an accessory to this crime.”

Documents and surveillance video footage received through a public records request make that clear, Mr. Rothwell wrote. Those documents, which were shared with the State News, appear to corroborate his allegations, although the video footage has not yet been verified.

The manager’s calendar indicates he had seven personal appointments during working hours and took three days off between April 1 and June 26 but barely used any personal time.

Mr. Rothwell also wrote the city indicated Mr. Williams took no leave before June 18: “If this is indeed true, this would mean that he took no personal or sick time off for the first year and half of his employment as City Manager; which is a fantasy fraud in the absolute extreme.”

Mr. Williams was hired as city manager in February 2017 after nine years with Milford in code enforcement and building inspection. He received a five-year agreement worth $66,500 in the first year, with pay raises of at least 3 percent in subsequent years, according to a copy of that contract provided by Mr. Rothwell.

While the city manager’s contract affords him flex time, Mr. Rothwell accused him of abusing that privilege, too.

“I can also attest as to having attended almost every City-sponsored evening meeting, including for Planning Commission, Board of Adjustment, Heritage Day Committee, Comprehensive Plan Committee, Economic Development Committee, 150th Anniversary Committee, and City Council meetings, and that the City Manager almost never attended any of said meetings (save for City Council meetings), and would thus not be entitled to Flex Time,” the former city planner wrote.

Though the letter paints a picture of Mr. Williams acting subservient to the mayor, his contract states he answers to the city council.

‘Criminal actions’ and ‘Immense embarrassment’
According to Mr. Rothwell’s letter, Mr. Williams’ and Mr. Moyer’s actions have reflected poorly on the town. In February of this year, Gov. John Carney held a roundtable on downtown development in the city. Allegedly, after Mr. Rothwell informed the city manager he and Mr. Moyer were requested to attend, Mr. Williams said neither could make it.

“It was an immense embarrassment for the City that its City Manager and Mayor chose to deliberately snub the Governor on this occasion,” Mr. Rothwell wrote. “The snub was duly recognized by the Governor himself; at the end of the program he stated, ‘since the Mayor didn’t bother showing up I guess I’ll have to give the closing remarks.’”

Beth Camac, owner of Main Street Cafe & Sweets, referenced the occasion Monday night, calling it “humiliating.”

She was one of several people who offered public comment at the meeting, questioning the city’s firing of Mr. Rothwell and the general fiscal management.

Mr. Rothwell himself spoke, with passion evident in his voice as he denounced Mr. Moyer and Mr. Williams.

“There’s not enough fingers and toes in this room to count the number of times I was lied to by the city manager and the mayor,” he said. “It’s comical.”

‘Held accountable’
The headbutting between Mr. Rothwell and his bosses came to a head this spring.

According to the letter, city officials planned to introduce an ordinance reducing the number of fee waivers a new business could receive. After learning of this, Mr. Rothwell wrote, he informed several developers they may soon have to contribute more than they planned to Harrington’s coffers, sparking a wave of angry phone calls to City Hall.

Several days later, the letter states, Mr. Williams rebuked Mr. Rothwell for sharing the details, saying “the other contractors can find about it after it has passed.”

At a subsequent city council meeting, members approved a motion sending the proposal to the City Economic Development Committee for possible changes. The committee, which includes Mr. Rothwell, spent substantial time crafting a compromise, only to have Vice Mayor Amy Minner modify it without their knowledge just a few hours before the City Council meeting, according to the letter.

While he was warned not to notify developers, Mr. Rothwell wrote, he did so anyway, believing “honesty, transparency, and predictability are the most important things” motivating developers to do business in Harrington.

During that council session, Mr. Rothwell wrote, he informed members why he did not back the change. Two days later, he was told he was not a good fit for the municipality, did not follow city rules and was being let go immediately, he said.

He said city officials had cited him for overcharging Taco Bell, a business in town, and while Mr. Rothwell admitted he billed the restaurant $3,500 instead of $1,000 for its “community impact fee,” he chalked it up to a simple misunderstanding of the city code. He acknowledged he also once undercharged the business for water and sewer fees but indicated that was due to a basic error that was not repeated after he was informed of it in an oral warning.

In neither case, the former city planner wrote, was he disciplined with a written reprimand.

Furthermore, he alleged, the firing came in violation of both city policy and state law: Mr. Rothwell wrote he was never given the required three warnings outlined in the city’s personnel handbook before his firing.
While Mr. Rothwell filed a grievance, Mr. Williams failed to hold multiple in-person meetings as mandated by the city’s personnel policy, according to the letter.

“I have attempted to rectify these before-mentioned issues through the grievance process as set forth in the Harrington Personnel Policy Manual, but I have not been able to present my case (and these instances of criminal misconduct) before the City Personnel Committee in direct violation of the Harrington Personnel and Policy Manual,” he wrote.

“Since the City does not have an Ethics Commission, I respectfully ask that the City Council request an independent investigation into these matters in coordination with the State Police and Office of the Attorney General so that the Mayor and City Manager can be held accountable for their criminal actions.”

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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