Communication and diversity will be the catchwords when Milton officials launch the search for a new town administrator, expected to be next week.
The process was set in motion last week, when the Board of Selectmen voted 2-1 in a closed session not to renew the contract of Town Administrator Kevin Mearn.
Like most Milton officials, Mearn had a one-year contract, which expired on June 30, so his termination took effect immediately. Assistant Town Administrator Annemarie Fagan has been serving as interim.
However, Board of Selectmen chairman Tom Hurley said this week that the board was advised it had violated the state’s Open Meeting Law by deciding on a contract in an executive session, and must revote in public after a 48-hour notice is given to residents and Mearn.
The board plans to revote on Monday, and probably form a search committee soon after.
Mearn did not return multiple calls for comment and it is unknown if he will attend the meeting Monday.
At least two selectmen said they do not think the decision made last week will change on Monday.
“We will vote again, but I’m certain there will not be much discussion,” said Hurley, who voted against the motion to deny the contract renewal.
Hurley said he could point to a number of accomplishments Mearn has made since he became town administrator in 2007. In particular, Hurley said, the town has avoided tax overrides since 2009, a fact he believes is due largely to Mearn’s leadership.
“I felt that Kevin Mearn was doing a good job and that there were no grounds not to renew his contract,” he said. “A lot of the credit often goes to the Board of Selectmen, but Kevin was the guy in the trenches.”
Mearn also received the support of nearly 100 residents who had signed an online petition as of Tuesday to reinstate him, saying that he has an “unblemished record” and “has treated all (Milton) citizens with unquestionable respect and dignity.”
Fagan, like many online, was also quick to say that Mearn had been loyal to the town his whole life and showed that in his day-to-day work.
“Anything that Kevin has done, he’s done to give back and for the betterment of the town,” she said.
However, a selectman who voted against Mearn last week feels that communication was lacking and that morale at Town Hall was at an “all-time low.”
The newest member of the board, Selectman Denis Keohane, said that when he campaigned earlier this year, it was on a platform to shake up Town Hall and look for ways to reorganize. He said he knew starting at the top was the first step because of what he called a “huge communication breakdown” between Mearn and Police Chief Richard Wells.
“The people voted me in because they felt a change was needed . . . and I thought we could start with a new town administrator, since this is a guy who has been immersed in Milton government for 39 years,” Keohane said.
Poor communication appears to have begun in the days when Mearn was police chief and supervised Wells. The problems escalated earlier this year and became apparent when both admitted to meeting only once or twice a year to discuss the police budget, Keohane said.
Last year, several issues surfaced after former selectman John Shields was the lone dissenter in a vote to renew Wells’s contract. Shields later said that his decision was due in part to a number of purchases and policy changes the chief made to his department without notification to the board or the town administrator.
The board had previously hired an outside attorney to investigate the Police Department’s compensatory time payments, the transfer of a police car to the Quincy Police Department, and the acquisition of two boats.
At that time, Shields said Wells was told to increase communication with the board and Mearn and was required to give at least one of the boats to the Fire Department.
Even so, Keohane, said he felt it was better for the town to not renew Mearn’s contract and keep Wells in his position.
“To give the right shake-up in the town, there was no way they could both stay,” he said. “That’s not saying that this wasn’t a hard decision, because this was one of my toughest decisions yet, and I lost plenty of nights of sleep over it.”
Selectman Bob Sweeney also voted against renewing Mearn’s contract and said in an e-mail that he felt the change “would complement the board . . . [and] serve the best interests of the citizens of Milton as we move forward.”
Hurley said that if the board reaffirms its vote Monday, it will appoint a search committee of department heads and citizens not involved in town government.
The top candidates will then interview with the Board of Selectmen, which has the final say.
Keohane said he hopes the change will bring a little more diversity to the town, which he said tends to hire people who have lived in Milton for most, if not all, of their lives. He also wants someone who is willing to sit down with all of the individual department heads at least weekly.
“Everybody who runs this town was born and raised in this town,” he said. “There’s no harm in shaking that up.”