Former Harrington manager gets public hearing: Williams to appear before council Tuesday

DOVER — The Harrington city manager who says he was unfairly fired over accusations of abusing the privileges granted by his job will get a public hearing Tuesday.

At issue are allegations made in the fall by a former city planner. Jeremy Rothwell, who worked for the city from December 2016 through June 2019, in October formally presented claims to City Council that Mayor Anthony Moyer misused his authority for personal gain, including having the city pay personal expenses, while Manager Don Williams took advantage of a flex time privilege and turned a blind eye to Mr. Moyer’s actions.

Council members two weeks ago voted to release the conclusions of an investigation by the state’s Public Integrity Commission into the issue.

Harrington Mayor Anthony Moyer, right. Delaware State News file photo

“It is more likely than not that Mr. Moyer and Mr. Williams both engaged in conduct that would constitute violations of the State Code of Conduct,” the findings state.

“However, Mr. Williams is no longer working for the city and the city may pursue civil remedies to recoup any monies owed. The issue with Mr. Moyer is more complicated because he holds an elected office. The PIC cannot remove an elected official, even if the allegations are substantiated after notice and a formal hearing.”

Mr. Williams was placed on paid leave in October and fired in January, although City Council has characterized his status as being on an unpaid suspension until the hearing. Mr. Moyer voluntarily stepped away from city duties after the accusations were made but returned to his role in December.

In Mr. Williams’ absence, Police Chief Norm Barlow has served as acting city manager.

Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Moyer have disputed the allegations, and Mr. Williams’ attorney said earlier this month Tuesday’s meeting is a chance for his client to clear his name.

The portion of the Public Integrity Commission that was released includes 13 bullet points laying out the specific issues the commission found to be “more likely than not.”

The claims concerning Mr. Moyer are that he “regularly exceeded the authority granted to him by city charter,” used his position to block a stop-work order on a commercial property he owned, tried to have his driveway and the commercial property’s sewer line replaced, entered into a $3,500 contract with a friend without informing City Council and billed Harrington for a personal E-ZPass violation.

Mr. Williams, the findings say, “exhibited a conflict of interest as to Mr. Moyer that affected his ability to independently exercise his official judgment,” took “excessive” time off without reporting vacation time and should pay back the city for accommodations at a recent trip to Nashville, Tennessee.

Former Harrington city planner Jeremy Rockwell. Delaware State News file photo

The other bullet points state the city might have been billed twice for work on the gas lines at its Public Works Building, at least one city employee has leaked confidential information to Mr. Moyer, Harrington may want to be more stringent in who it contracts with and city employees are not aware of the proper division of power between City Council and the mayor.

The statements from the report are in line with most of Mr. Rothwell’s allegations, claims made based off his experiences while employed by the city and by documents and video obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Other side of the story

Mr. Williams and Mr. Moyer, for their part, believe they have been treated unfairly, with people adopting a presumption of guilt rather than waiting to hear all the facts.

“It is my feeling that both the city and PIC only focused on one side of the story and never once attempted to gather information or ask questions of the city manager or myself,” Mr. Moyer wrote in a recent response to the conclusions. “This whole process has been tried in the papers, not only hard on us but family as well there has to be a better way. Unbelievable!”

Chris Johnson, a lawyer representing Mr. Williams, said his client was fired in violation of the city’s charter, which requires the city manager be given a written explanation and a public hearing before removal. The charter does allow for the officeholder to be suspended before that hearing occurs, but Mr. Johnson said Mr. Williams was informed last month he was terminated with no reason given.

According to Mr. Johnson, the Public Integrity Commission also failed to keep Mr. Williams informed, never approaching the former manager for his explanation. Mr. Williams’ termination, the attorney alleged, stems from an incident with Mr. Rothwell, though he declined to go into detail about the occurrence.

Mr. Rothwell accused Mr. Williams of regularly leaving work early or arriving late, which he termed criminal fraud.

“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,” he wrote in a letter to City Council. “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 three-month period, and I can testify under oath to having witnessed the same behavior throughout his entire tenure as city manager. Under Delaware law, theft of anything greater than $1,500 is classified as a felony.”

At a City Council meeting, Mr. Rothwell said the city manager’s calendar and time sheets indicate he took 58 personal appointments and seven days off between his hiring in February 2017 and June 2019 but did not use any personal or sick time.

The ex-city planner also cited a fall conference in Nashville attended by Mr. Williams. While the event lasted from Oct. 20 to Oct. 23, Mr. Williams stayed for seven days, bringing his family with him. He charged their travel costs to the city, ultimately reimbursing it after Mr. Rothwell presented the allegations to City Council, according to the documents shared by Mr. Rothwell.

Mr. Johnson admitted Mr. Williams mixed business with pleasure on the Nashville trip and was willing to pay back the total, which came to around $900, but never received a bill from the city. He disputed, however, the allegation involving abuse of flex and vacation time policies, saying his client simply did not get sick and was able to do his job even if it meant working some irregular hours at times.

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.

Though Mr. Rothwell accused Mr. Williams of acting subservient to the mayor, his contract states he answers to the council.

According to Mr. Johnson, City Council never requested Mr. Williams report solely to it.

Mr. Rothwell was fired from the city last year, which he says was improper and stemmed partially from a personal vendetta by the manager and mayor. He has since filed a lawsuit against Harrington.

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 his property at 40 Commerce St. despite failing to first obtain permits for renovations and change the zoning from residential to commercial.

Mr. Rothwell said he confronted Mr. Williams about the lack of certification, only to be told the mayor claimed Mr. Rothwell informed him permits were not required. Mr. Moyer continued to assert this even after Mr. Rothwell produced documents contradicting his statement, according to Mr. Rothwell.

Mr. Moyer then allegedly pressured the city building inspector into withholding a stop work order.

In his letter, Mr. Moyer said Mr. Rothwell told him he did not need a permit and painted his visit to the city’s building division as the actions of “an upset landlord” rather than the mayor seeking to assert his authority.

Another issue involving the building at 40 Commerce St. later arose due to unpenalized violations of the International Property Maintenance Code, such as chipped paint and peeling siding, Mr. Rothwell wrote in a letter presented to City Council in October. In early 2018, according to Mr. Rothwell, Mr. Moyer 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 one to take place on a weekend — more than a month after the other rental units in the city had been examined.

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 from New Jersey for $55.70, which he billed to the city.

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. The Public Integrity Commission’s conclusions say Mr. Moyer did not recompensate the city until than more than a year had elapsed.

Mr. Moyer admitted he initially forgot to pay the toll but said he thought he had taken care of the issue with New Jersey’s E-ZPass vendor a long time ago.

He also pushed back against the report’s claims he misused his authority to have a driveway and sewer line repaired, entered into an improper contract and generally overstepped his authority.

The contract with a friend came from his work in the HVAC field, Mr. Moyer wrote. Because of his duties in that area, he knows many contractors and sometimes has access to equipment, such as a commercial heater he offered to the city for no cost, he said.

That heater, which cost $6,000, was installed by a local contractor Mr. Moyer introduced to the city’s director of public works, the mayor wrote, describing the signing of a contract as one of the powers granted to him by the city charter.

Harrington’s founding document says City Council has the ability to enter into contracts, which must be signed by the mayor.

The claim the city was billed twice for gas is accurate but only because of a quirk of how the gas lines are set up, Mr. Moyer said.

It’s unclear whether City Council plans to push for any punishment for the mayor, who in his letter both shot down the argument he overreached and lamented the commission’s process.

“Although I respect the Public Integrity Commission (PIC), I feel the system is not fair to those accused of doing wrong in that there is no redress to the individuals making the accusations (the right to confront your accusers) I also feel there are statements made in the conclusion where the PIC committee was either not provided a fully copy of the charter for the city or due to bias chose to not investigate the full reading of the charter before making incorrect conclusions,” Mr. Moyer wrote.