Harrington upholds manager’s firing

Attorney Chris Johnson, left, asks questions to former Harrington City Manager Don Williams as he testifies to Harrington City Council during a public hearing on Tuesday. The council voted 5-1 to uphold his firing. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

HARRINGTON — Harrington City Council upheld its firing of City Manager Don Williams after a crowded and occasionally contentious public hearing Tuesday.

Mr. Williams was terminated by the city last month, officially for failing to preserve electronic evidence relating to the firing of a former city planner in June. That planner, Jeremy Rothwell, accused Mr. Williams in the fall of misusing his post, including failing to work the hours he was paid for and ignoring abuses of power by Mayor Anthony Moyer.

By a 5-1 vote, council members voted not to undo Mr. Williams’ termination. Eric Marquis was the only person to vote in favor of reinstating him.

Afterward, Mr. Williams’ attorney lamented the decision, saying his client still wants to defend his reputation.

“We’re not happy with the outcome tonight, but Don and his good name, it’s very important,” Chris Johnson said. “He’s a longtime Harrington resident, so we’re not going to stop here. We’re going to go further, go to the next step. Unfortunately, this just keeps the turmoil going, but Don is not backing down.”

Mr. Johnson said Mr. Williams hopes to resolve the issue with the city amicably but is willing to file a lawsuit if need be.

Harrington Council member Joe Gannon, left, and Harrington Police Chief Norman Barlow listen to former Harrington City Manager Don Williams as he testifies to Harrington City Council during a Town Meeting on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Around 80 people showed up for the hearing, necessitating it be moved from council chambers to the more spacious community center directly across the street. In all, the hearing took about 90 minutes, including a closed-door executive session of 25 or so minutes.

Background

After Mr. Rothwell made his claims public in October, City Council placed Mr. Williams on paid leave. Mr. Moyer, who also was alleged to have regularly exceeded his statutory authority and used his position for personal gain, stepped away from his city duties at that time, although he returned to them in December.

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

City Council late last year authorized an investigation by the state Public Integrity Commission into the claims and earlier this month agreed to release the conclusions, although not the full report.

Those findings back many of Mr. Rothwell’s claims.

“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 conclusions state.

Harrington’s former city planner Jeremy Rothwell listens to Don Williams as he testifies to Harrington City Council during a Town Meeting on Tuesday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“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.”

Specific claims include Mr. Williams taking significant time off work without using vacation time and charging the city for a visit to a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, where he took his family and stayed several days longer than the event. Mr. Moyer is accused of using his role as mayor to halt a stop-work order placed on a property he owns, entering into a contract with a friend without approval from City Council and charging a personal E-ZPass violation to the city, among other things.

First elected in 2013 and then re-elected four years later, Mr. Moyer mostly has ceremonial duties. He presides over council meetings and recommends committee appointments but cannot vote unless there is a tie.

Both Mr. Williams and Mr. Moyer have disputed many of the allegations.

Mr. Williams’ attorney has described the termination as unjust and in violation of a city statute, while Mr. Moyer recently attacked the Public Integrity Commission’s investigation as incomplete and unfair.

Although Mr. Moyer wrote in a letter the group never contacted him, the commission’s legal counsel disputes that claim. Staff attorney Deborah Moreau said this week she met with him for about an hour in late December.

Ms. Moreau said she also reached out to Mr. Williams around the same time but his attorney advised him not to speak.

The hearing

Tuesday night, Mr. Williams and his attorney pushed back against City Council’s decision, arguing it was in violation of the proper procedure.

Mr. Williams, Mr. Johnson told City Council, was fired “for not preserving evidence in which he was never told he had an obligation to preserve.”

Questioning Mr. Williams as if he were a courtroom witness, Mr. Johnson sought to share his client’s side of the story.

After an unspecified incident with Mr. Rothwell, Mr. Williams terminated the planner on June 19, calling in the chief of police as a witness and using his phone to record the interaction to help him take notes on the incident later.

In July, the city received a letter stating it was being sued by Mr. Rothwell and instructing employees to keep potential evidence relating to the termination. Mr. Williams then gave the recording to the mayor, at which point he realized it was almost totally inaudible, he said.

Mr. Williams said he was never told by city solicitor Bill Pepper, who died in December, he had to keep the recording and was unaware of any policy or law stating he could not delete it.

The manager was asked for the recording in October, at which point he informed officials he had erased it, something he said he regularly did after typing notes based on audio. A short time after the ask, according to Mr. Williams, City Council requested he resign for failing to keep the recording.

According to Mr. Johnson, a former assistant solicitor for Wilmington, his client is being unfairly punished for the Harrington city solicitor inexplicably not informing him the recording should be kept.

“The fact is Mr. Williams should be not be left holding the bag for getting faulty legal counsel” from Mr. Pepper, Mr. Johnson said.

While City Council’s letter terminating him was drafted Feb. 9, mailed the next day and received a few days later, according to Mr. Williams, he stopped being paid Jan. 5.

The firing dealt him a severe blow, seriously impacting the whole Williams family in the self-proclaimed “Hub of Delaware” and its close-knit community of about 3,600 residents.

“I can honestly say it affected every facet of my life,” Mr. Williams told City Council Tuesday.

He said he had never received any complaints about his performance as city manager, a position he began 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.

Although Mr. Rothwell has accused Mr. Williams of acting subservient to the mayor, his contract states he answers to the council. According to Mr. Johnson, City Council is at fault, as the body never requested Mr. Williams report solely to it.

City Council members posed a few questions to Mr. Williams Tuesday, with Councilman Joseph Gannon Jr. questioning if he had ever worked for Harrington before. Mr. Williams said he had, more than a decade ago, and left the job due to “differences” very similar to his current situation, a response that prompted a sarcastic chuckle from the audience.

Several members of the public spoke at the end, with a mix between people defending and denouncing Mr. Williams.

Barbara Bullock accused “the media” of presenting “fake news” to generate clicks, embarrassing the city in the year it celebrated its 150th anniversary, while Jack Stewart urged City Council to remember the oath of office.

“Let your conscience be your guide,” he said.