Just as he has for the past five years, Milton’s town administrator, Kevin J. Mearn, answered his office phone Tuesday morning, even though selectmen had voted the night before not to renew his expired contract. And he said he will not leave until they make him go.
Mearn, like most Milton officials, has a one-year contract and had been working without one since June 30. On July 18, the Board of Selectmen voted 2 to 1in a closed meeting not to renew his contact. But that session violated the state’s Open Meeting Law, and selectmen had to vote again Monday.
Although several residents and Thomas J. Hurley, the board chairman, called for reversal of the previous vote, Selectmen Denis F. Keohane and Robert C. Sweeney again voted not to renew Mearn’s contract. After the vote, Mearn’s attorney and Hurley said the board’s vote did not specify when Mearn had to step down.
“The selectmen made it clear that they were not terminating him,” attorney Ken Kurnos said Monday. “This is not a disciplinary action; they are just not renewing his contract.” He added that Mearn is free to return to work until selectmen give him an official termination notice.
He may not have to wait long.
On Tuesday, Kurnos said, Mearn was informed that selectmen will hold an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. Thursday. The only item on the agenda is the employment dates for the town administrator and assistant town administrator. Kurnos said he expects that the Board of Selectmen will officially state that it is terminating Mearn’s employment.
The dispute revolves mainly around communication.
Keohane, who was elected in April, has said he had campaigned on a platform to shake up Town Hall and look for ways to boost morale, which he believes is at “an all-time low.” He said the first step is finding a new administrator, because of a “huge communication breakdown” between Mearn and Police Chief Richard Wells.
Some of the problems reportedly began when Mearn, who has worked in various capacities for the town over 39 years, was police chief and supervised Wells. The rift widened last year after selectmen hired former state attorney general Scott Harshbarger to investigate the Police Department’s compensatory time payments, the transfer of a police car to the Quincy Police Department, and acquisition of two boats.
At that time, Wells was told to give the boats to the Milton Fire Department and to increase communication with the board and Mearn. However, Keohane said, meetings between town administrator and chief had all but stopped.
Wells could not be reached for comment last night.
Keohane said he felt it was better for the town to not renew Mearn’s contract and keep Wells. “To give the right shake-up in the town, there was no way they could both stay.”
On Monday, Mearn was given a chance to speak before and after the board’s vote. He at first offered to retire next June; however, Keohane and Sweeney rejected that option.
Mearn later read from a statement referring to incidents with the police chief, without mentioning his name, and thanked residents who filled the room and voiced support.
“This all began with my bringing to the board’s attention certain serious irregularities by a department head,” he said. “While the board has chosen, for reasons only they can know, to make this issue personal, it was never personal to me. It was an issue of policy and governance.”
The selectmen chose Assistant Town Administrator Annemarie Fagan to serve as interim town administrator. But Mearn said he plans to keep running his office as usual.
“Right now, I’m trying to help my staff running and keep from falling too far behind,” he said Tuesday. “And, just like I always have in this position and my position as police chief, I will continue answering my office phone.”Visit www.boston.com/milton to see video from Monday’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting. Natalie Feulner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.