Review of Harrington city manager’s performance set

DOVER — Harrington City Council’s Personnel Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday, eight days after a former city employee presented local officials with allegations of criminal and civil misconduct by the mayor and city manager.

While the agenda is brief, there’s one item of note: an executive session that boasts the subheadline “Personnel Matter — City Manager Performance.”

Harrington’s city manager, Don Williams, is alleged to have committed time theft, bent city rules for personal gain and improperly fired an employee.

Former Harrington planner Jeremy Rothwell, who worked for the city from December 2016 through June of this year, last week urged City Council to conduct an investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Mr. Williams and Mayor Anthony Moyer.

The allegations against Mr. Moyer include use of office and city property for personal gain, failure to follow city ordinances and bullying city employees.

While there doesn’t appear to be any investigation yet, this planned meeting, notice of which was posted online the day after the City Council forum, appears to be council members’ first response to the complaints.

“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 a letter he presented to council members.

The claims made by Mr. Rothwell, if true, are substantial. They are based on his recollection, as well as documents and video he obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Many of those documents were shared with the State News and appear to corroborate some of his claims.

Mr. Moyer, who did not directly address the allegations during last week’s meeting, declined comment when asked afterward. Contacted again Friday, he again opted not to comment except to say he would be putting out a statement next week and this newspaper should have done a better job checking the facts.

Mr. Williams missed the meeting because he was at a conference in Tennessee. Reached by email last week, he declined to speak.

A spokesman for the Delaware Department of Justice wrote in an email the agency generally does not file any charges until police have investigated. Delaware State Police directed questions to the Harrington Police Department.

Harrington Police Chief Norman Barlow could not be reached for comment Friday.

Attempts last week to gauge where the six council members stand on the allegations were largely unsuccessful, with Joseph Gannon Jr. being the only one to share his thoughts. Council members Eric Marquis and Charles Baugher Jr. both declined comment, while Amy Minner, Micah Parker and Duane Bivans did not respond to messages left for them.

The members of the Personnel Committee are Mr. Parker, Mr. Marquis and Mr. Gannon.

Elected to council within the past six months, Mr. Gannon said Tuesday he is of two minds regarding the request for an investigation. While he has questions about the way Mr. Rothwell was fired and admitted he has butted heads with Mr. Williams before, Mr. Gannon said he is worried the concerns may just be “sour grapes.”

No grievance request from Mr. Rothwell was filed, he said.

However, Mr. Rothwell disputes that, and emails provided by him appear to show he did indeed communicate with city officials, including Mr. Williams, about having a formal hearing before the Personnel Committee. That meeting was never scheduled, and Mr. Rothwell said he did not receive any further response from Mr. Williams or the city’s human resources manager — including after getting a letter from his lawyer.

Harrington City Hall

“Accordingly, my client is prepared to execute a full release in exchange for reinstatement of his position, backpay from the date of termination, and if the City agrees to pay his legal expenses,” the letter from attorney Michele Allen concludes. “In the event the City is unprepared to immediately reinstated my client he is willing to accept a severance payment equivalent to eighteen months salary, conversion of his termination to a resignation, and reimbursement of his legal costs and fees. This amount is far less than what a jury will award if this matter is forced to litigation.

“If the parties are unable to resolve this matter promptly, my client will be compelled to file a public complaint and engage in long protracted litigation, including discovery, subject matter expert testimonies, which will undoubtedly confirm, inter alia, the aforestated allegations.”

Allegations
According to Mr. Rothwell, Mr. Moyer without the proper permits rented out space in a building he owns and continuously failed to meet city standards for upkeep, plus pressured city employees to look the other way.

Another part of the allegations has Mr. Moyer squashing a planned annexation by a developer he disliked and viewed as a potential political rival.

In 2018, according to the letter, Mr. Moyer drove a city trailer to New York for personal use, collecting a $55.70 E-ZPass toll fine in the process. That fine, Mr. Rothwell says, was 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.

Mr. Rothwell contests he was fired for informing developers, against the wishes of the mayor and manager, of a planned city ordinance that would have increased costs for them. Officially, he was released from his job for performing his duties improperly and not getting along with city officials, which he disputes.

His letter also accuses Mr. Williams of essentially stealing from taxpayers.

“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.

“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.”

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. 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.

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.

Reaction
About 20 members of the public attended last week’s City Council meeting, and it was apparent most of them have doubts and frustrations about the way the city is being run. Several people backed Mr. Rothwell’s call for an investigation, and a few expressed concern over his dismissal.

Darrin Simpson, the owner of Blue Hen Construction, questioned the impact not having a full-time planner would have on the town’s participation in the Downtown Development District program, while Main Street Cafe & Sweets owner Beth Camac wondered why the city had only brought on a part-time planner to replace Mr. Rothwell.

To Richard Messick, owner of MadClay Homes, the writing seemed to be on the wall regarding the hiring of a part-time employee.

“Jeremy Rothwell was the best thing that ever happened to this town, and you guys firing him was the most unintelligent thing,” Mr. Messick said to applause from several other members of the audience.

Some members of the Harrington business community were more eager than others to share their thoughts on the situation when contacted last week, but those who spoke praised Mr. Rothwell and expressed a sense of being left in the dark about his dismissal.

“There was an energy for progress when Jeremy was there, and I’m waiting to see who’s going to pick up the ball with a lot of the projects that he was working on,” Jesse Riggin, owner of Delmarva Chiropractic and Wellness Center, said.

Ms. Camac said businesses are not receiving enough support from the city, something she attributed in large part to Mr. Rothwell’s absence.

“His passion for our town was very, very, very well received by us local businesses,” she said.

The decision to fire him was “cruel and unjust,” said Ms. Camac, who was one of the most forceful speakers at the City Council meeting.

The Clutter Box owner Jack Stewart echoed many of her points, saying city residents were simply being told “it’s been handled, it’s been taken care of” with no further explanation.

Ms. Camac also has a bone to pick with Mr. Williams and Mr. Moyer stemming from an February event held by the governor in Harrington. The mayor and manager both did not attend the town hall, something Gov. John Carney took note of.

According to Mr. Rothwell, Mr. Williams and Mr. Moyer planned to attend a settlement for a property on Clark Street at that same time despite their presence not being mandatory. They deliberately snubbed the governor, Ms. Camac said, leaving her and many others in the city “sad, embarrassed and appalled.”

History
This is not the first time allegations of misconduct have rocked Harrington City Hall.

In 2007, former Finance Director Christine Truitt was arrested for stealing more than $800,000 from the city. Police said she wrote checks to herself, her daughter and son-in-law, forging the mayor’s and vice mayor’s signatures.

She was sentenced to four years in prison, plus two more on work release and probation, in 2008, while her daughter and son-in-law received slightly lesser sentences. The three were also responsible for paying restitution of $800,034.55 to the city.

After the arrests, the city pledged to put more safeguards in place.

Harrington bills itself as “the hub of Delaware,” although its population totals an estimated 3,600 or so, an increase of about 100 residents from 2010. It’s also an impoverished area.

According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 21.5 percent of the population lives in poverty (although the data has a very large margin of error, meaning that figure could be as high as 36 percent), more than the state rate of 12.1 percent.

About 39 percent of students in the Lake Forest School District, which covers Harrington and most of southwest Kent County, are defined as low income, compared to 31.5 percent statewide.

The city’s small size and economic status makes it all the more important to have city officials working hard to stimulate expansion and spend wisely, several people said.

“If anything, I think everything has gone down since Jeremy left,” Ms. Camac lamented. “There’s no growth here. There’s nothing.”

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

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