Councilors at odds over reason for failing city services

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."

staylor@sunjournal.com

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Comments

 's picture

Joe Gray, you hit the nail

Joe Gray, you hit the nail right on the head.

Larry T. Doughty's picture

Lacking support by Councilor's own decisions

What a courageous bunch of elected official's. Making the decisions, then blaming City Manager Glenn Aho. These Councilor's will be called in for their scapegoating efforts.

Good job Manager Aho.

 's picture

Are you serious?

If I lived in Brewer and didn't have to see the state of the city everyday, I might be inclined to believe this "story". But living here tells a different tale.

The number of people let go over the last couple of years has been devastating to the city. The city manager has hired several "key" people who are loyal to him yet completely unqualified for the jobs for which they have been hired. Public Works is the premier example. The workers there are doing good work - as they always have - but are being extraordinarily mismanaged. The current management team that Mr Aho has out to work there is costing the city in excess of $300,000 a year - for four people. Why does a city the size of Auburn need a Director, a Deputy Director, and two Operations Managers? The top two positions aren't even located in public works but rather have offices in city hall. Are they really managing public works or just being lunch buddies with the city manager?

The city manager stated the current set-up, dubbed the "5P Management System", allows him to not hold department manager's meetings that were too unwieldy with 14 different department heads at one meeting. So he devised a more multi-leveled and expensive system. Further, two out of three of the team leaders are untested managers. Is this good management?

Jobs that used to take a few hours to a day to do are now taking considerably longer. It is not because the city council told Mr Aho where to cut. They offered up a challenge of a million dollars, but when he was unable to meet it, they reduced it to an acceptable level. Mr Aho could have chosen cuts more judiciously, but used the opportunity to rid the city of staff he deemed undesirable. There was no need to do what he did. There is STILL plenty of excess in the budgets that could be cut without hurting services.

Mr Aho's one true talent is politics. He is good at putting one over on people. He will stretch the truth to your face, if not outright lie. When pressed about the inaccurate numbers on the budget, he will insist they are right until he can no longer bluff his way through it and then he will dismiss the complainant out of hand. And I'm told he does this to staff regularly. Watch the city council meetings on Great Falls TV and you will see what I mean.

Mr Aho has worked tirelessly to pump up himself and his management system with near complete disregard for the citizens of this city. He came forward with a budget that would have added $1.74 per thousand to our tax rate - already one of the highest in the state. Because some members of the council have taken a close look at the budget they got that down to 27 cents per thousand, largely without the help of the city manager. He wasted a great deal of time complaining he didn't have any direction. Therefore, he did nothing.

Councilor Young did not help a bit. He proposes nothing. In fact, he has been known to fall asleep at meetings, again, look at the meeting on Great Falls TV. He is perhaps the least effective councilor on the council. You may disagree with Councilors Herrick, Farrell, Gerry, and Berube, but at least they are there trying to do what they think is right - not simply trying to gum up the works.

If you are so enthralled with Mr Aho and his 5P management system, why not get Brewer to offer his a job. That way it would be a win win for both municipalities.

Larry T. Doughty's picture

Glen's management style..

Having served the citizens of Brewer for 24 years on the City Council, I can fully appreciate some of your comments. Now, if the city council is unhappy with the personnel staff, all they had/have to do is not fun those positions you discussed. It does appear that manager Aho has the backing of the majority of members. Your issues can easily be rectified, merely by budget restraints. Best

Jim Cyr's picture

Services

How about totally cutting out the Police officers sitting at road construction sites? Totally unnecessary.I have worked for a utility and other line construction jobs for many years and have never found it necessary for their presence. And the contractor was always responsible for the flag duty as well.How much funds should be diverted for more important services by eliminating this function? Our Police officers have enough on their plate to perform this waste of time and fuel!

 's picture

Police services

It's been my experience that they are off-duty officers paid for by the construction company.

Jim Cyr's picture

Services

Off duty and in uniform and in city vehicles? Who are you kidding with your experience?

 's picture

Well Jim...

My experience would involve 24 years full-time in public safety. When you see an ambulance at a high school football game, do you think they're there just to watch the game? No, it's usually a requirement of the state or principal's association. And those folks are being paid.

I've worked and lived in four other states besides Maine. In every case, when a police officer is at a construction site, they are there working overtime with those dollars being paid to the department by the construction company. (Which ultimately means you and I are paying for them as taxpayers.)

 's picture

Mr Dutton seems correct

I called a friend who is a cop in South Portland and he said construction companies are obligated to hire off-duty cops and rent the cars in order to staff construction sites. The construction company pays all the costs associated with this duty - although it simply results in higher costs for municipal projects being passed on to the taxpayers.

So it would seem Mr Dutton is correct - at least in South Portland and probably here as well. Though on municipal projects we the taxpayers still ultimately pay.

 's picture

Thank You Joe

I appreciate you checking my facts.

 's picture

Council

Changes in the budget are often painful, but some changes should NOT HAPPEN such as SNOW PLOWING and REMOVAL of it in order to allow drivers better views especially backing out of their own driveways. Some of us have to go out early in the mornings to get to work, real early and if the snow is not plowed except on the major streets where most people don't live it can be dangerous getting to the main drags.

Possibly councilor Gerry and Berube will not run also... hurray!!!!

I don't believe I have ever seen her (Gerry) at my door before election time explaining to me her points of view and asking for my vote.

Councilor Berube needs to work through the whole process with the group, he seems to have his own agenda and cares little for what else is happening in the room.

At least Councilor Hayes responds to emails or at least acts upon them at our behest. Thank you Bob.

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