Falmouth Town Manager's Future Called Into Question
By: Christopher Kazarian
Is today Robert L. Whritenour Jr.’s last day as town manager in Falmouth?
It is a rumor that has surfaced over the past week after selectmen met in executive session this past Monday at 10:15 PM. The agenda item was listed as “strategy for negotiations with non-union personnel,” a category under which Mr. Whritenour falls.
The purpose of the executive session was for the board to discuss Mr. Whritenour’s 2009 evaluation and outline their future goals for him. At some point during what was roughly a two-hour executive session, selectmen held a vote related to Mr. Whritenour’s future with the town. As to what selectmen voted on is unclear.
This week both selectmen and Mr. Whritenour were tight-lipped about the matter.
When asked whether the board voted to remove Mr. Whritenour from office, Selectman Ahmed A. Mustafa said, “I’m not at liberty to talk about executive session. I can’t confirm or deny what you stated. All I can say is stay tuned.”
His colleagues Mary (Pat) Flynn and David Braga would not comment on the situation, while Melissa C. Freitag did not return phone calls.
The board’s chairman, Brent V.W. Putnam, who has been critical of Mr. Whritenour in the past and has previously suggested the town leader look elsewhere for employment, said he would not reveal what occurred in executive session.
As to the rumors floating throughout town that Mr. Whritenour will soon be gone, Mr. Putnam said,“I can’t speculate on rumor. I haven’t heard those rumors. I hate speculating on rumors.”
He did say he met with Mr. Whritenour, who was present at Monday’s executive session, on Tuesday.
“I talk to him several times a week,” he said. “I’ve got meetings with him four times a week. I have a lot of business to do with him and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t meet with him... I can’t discuss why I talked with him. Not everything is public record.”
Similarly, Mr. Whritenour would not comment on what occurred in Monday’s executive session. He said he would comment “when the time is appropriate.” As to when he might be able to make a statement, he said it would be sometime next week.
While selectmen and Mr. Whritenour were reticent, it has not stopped the rumors from circulating elsewhere throughout Falmouth about the town manager’s ouster.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Falmouth Firefighter Russell R. Ferreira, who also is the head of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1397. “I don’t generally listen to rumors because if you wish for something, you find it doesn’t come true.”
Mr. Ferreira was not shy about his frustration with how the town has been run under Mr. Whritenour’s watch. “He manages for today instead of tomorrow and he’s left tomorrow bleak,” Mr. Ferreira said, although he also placed blame on Assistant Town Manager Heather B. Harper and the board of selectmen.
He said talk of Mr. Whritenour’s removal began last week, and “wherever the word is leaking from, it’s traveling fast.”
Word of selectmen taking such action has been ongoing for the past year, said Gary R. Lutz, an employee for both the Department of Public Works and the Falmouth Senior Center.
“I wouldn’t want to put any credence in those rumors,” he said. “I don’t have much faith in them. Unless there is something you are basing it on, I don’t know. I’m not privy to what goes on there.”
Jay W. Hill, director of Falmouth Veterans Services, also has heard the chatter. “It has been a hot rumor for about a week,” he said. “I don’t know of anything definite, but it’s been that way for about six months.”
Part of the reason the rumor mill has been circulating, he said, is that Ms. Harper has been handling the layoffs of the seven employees in the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 1636.
“Where’s Waldo?” he joked, in reference to Mr. Whritenour’s absence in those negotiations. “I don’t know why she’s handling it, but I don’t think that conversation [about the layoffs] is over.”
He added that there is an outward appearance among public employees that Ms. Harper is “the number-one person in town... Bob is not giving any direction. Heather has been the number-one person for the union, the windmills, everything.”
Whether the lack of a defined leader makes it difficult for town employees to do their job, Mr. Hill did not think so.
“The town is a good running machine,” he said. “I don’t see any bumps... We’ve been well trained and all departments work together and stick with each other in trying to come up with ways to save money. We are pretty much running day to day as we normally would.”
At the same time, he said, the public may want the assurance of having a definite person in command, particularly during a crisis.
For Building Commissioner Eladio R. Gore, who said he was unaware of rumors that selectmen have voted to remove Mr. Whritenour, the tumult going on behind the scenes over the past year is unhealthy.
“It is an unfortunate situation,” he said. “I hope it gets resolved because it leaves uncertainty in everyone else in town hall and for department heads who rely on the town manager for assistance, direction, and help.”
Falmouth Town Clerk Michael C. Palmer agreed, arguing that town employees “would want to know one way or the other and then move forward. Either they are going to can him or not. And if they are going to can him, they should move forward and find solutions.”
He said he heard from a reliable source that “something took place in their executive session... I’ve heard people wanted to get rid of him in the past, but this is the closest I heard they were going to do it.... Right now it is a rumor, and I really don’t know. It is all hypothetical until I hear something official.”
As the rumors continue to swirl, selectmen are set to discuss Mr. Whritenour’s performance at their meeting on Monday night.
That agenda item is tied to Mr. Whritenour’s evaluation, which they are required to do annually according to his contract and the town charter. The last time the board fulfilled this requirement was in 2008.
That lapse in responsibility was one of the criticisms some board members had when selectmen started the process for removing Mr. Whritenour from office in February. But that process, conducted in executive session, was a contentious one, with Mr. Mustafa criticizing Ms. Flynn, then board chairman, for discussing Mr. Whritenour’s removal without the town manager present. Mr. Mustafa was the sole selectman who refused to attend that executive session in February.
Now, seven months later, it appears a move could be afoot that would spell the end to Mr. Whritenour’s nine-year tenure in Falmouth.
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