AUBURN — The only thing city councilors in Auburn will agree on right now is that city services are down.
For Councilor Dan Herrick, it's the fault of City Manager Glenn Aho and his attempts to change Auburn Hall's organizational structure. Because of that, according to Herrick, phones go unanswered, winter streets go unplowed and nothing gets accomplished.
"They spend all their time running from meetings," Herrick said Wednesday. "Nobody wants to talk about it, but employee morale is at an all-time low."
Councilor Mike Farrell said he might agree on the lack of services but not the cause.
"It's us, this council," Farrell said. "We made decisions last year to cut the budget and we knew it came with a price tag — or, we should have known. So, if you're mad that it takes longer to answer the phone, you can blame me. I voted to cut that budget."
Both councilors have said they won't run for re-election in November, but Herrick said he wants the matter to become an issue for candidates this year. He also would like to see Aho ousted as city manager.
Farrell called that a witch hunt.
"Dan is mad at the wrong guy," Farrell said. "We all came in demanding results. We wanted to keep the tax rate down and we managed to do that. (Aho) has bent over backward for this council and it's been tough, and now they want to put a knife in his back."
For Farrell, the current situation began in the spring of 2010, when the council issued its $1 million budget challenge. Faced with a 9 percent budget increase that year, councilors directed staff to cut at least $1 million from the budget. After Aho and staff presented a plan to trim $1.12 million, councilors backed off a bit and accepted a budget that cut $537,000.
Aho said those cuts were still deep enough to force the shuffle of his departments. He opted to not replace several high-level employees, including the assistant city manager, fire chief and planning director, and reorganized departments into three teams.
The Public Services team includes the Public Works, Planning, Recreation and Economic and Community Development departments. The Public Safety team includes police, fire and dispatch, and the Public Administration team includes the city clerk, Finance, Assessing, Human Resources and Systems.
Aho said he has encouraged cross-training, allowing employees from different departments to share tasks and work together.
"This is all something we've had to do to meet the council's goals and to make our services more efficient," Aho said Friday. "We are the rare example of a city actually listening to the public mood about government and taxes: They can't get bigger, but they have to get more efficient."
Aho admits there have been bumps along the way, but he believes the city has made progress.
"Our successes are coming in places where employees are working together," he said. "They are actively working together and solving problems and holding each other accountable. By any standard of management, it's been tremendous."
Herrick said he has evidence that city employees are miserable. He wouldn't release his evidence, but said he plans to once he's out of office.
Councilor Belinda Gerry agreed with Herrick but said the information she has is protected by executive session rules.
Farrell doubted they have any evidence.
"I've asked them before and I'll ask them again: Show me something," he said. "But they can't, and they won't."
Councilors Ray Berube and Robert Hayes could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday. Councilor David Young said he thinks Herrick and Gerry are on their own.
"There is enough hostility right now, and enough complaints," he said. "The rest of the council, we're not buying into what Dan says."
Young agreed with Farrell that council budget cuts caused the current problems and council interference is making them worse.
"If you ask me, certain councilors are micro-managers," Young said. "They have the role to set policy, but they don't want to do that. They want to get out and manage things and how they are done and that is just not our job."
Councilor Eric Samson said he would not dismiss complaints from Herrick or Gerry and declined to comment on his views about the city manager.
"It's not up to individual councilors," Samson said. "We are a board and we act as a board. We had a process where we evaluated the manager's performance and now we've moved on."