Southwest Harbor navigates staff changes

SOUTHWEST HARBOR— There have been a lot of changes at the Southwest Harbor Town Office in the last couple of months that are expected to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Currently, town officials are in the process of figuring out how to conduct a search for a permanent town manager and a police chief. Since the removal of Town Manager Justin VanDongen at the Jan. 26 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, Dana Reed has agreed to be the interim town manager until a permanent replacement is hired. 

During their meeting Tuesday night, members of the Board of Selectmen signed a findings of fact statement that was drawn up by the town’s attorney regarding VanDongen’s dismissal. It states the board decided to remove the town manager for “convenience. As described in the contract, convenience means ‘without cause.’”  

Four findings of fact were listed as followsThe town manager was not terminated for cause. The board, in evaluating the future course of the town, believed that a change in leadership at the town manager level would benefit the town. The board had lost confidence that the town manager was the best person to lead and manage the town. Exercising the “termination without cause” provision of the town manager’s employment contract was in the best interests of the town and town manager. 

In a later discussion with the Islander, VanDongen said he agreed “that exercising the termination for convenience clause” was in everyone’s best interest. He said that “the decline in (Select) Board consistency and competency caused by the last two municipal elections made progress on major issues impossible.” He also said that there are “issues of self-service and unethical behavior that I was never willing to bend to.”  

VanDongen said he was proud of the time he spent “working to improve town operations and infrastructure and was grateful for the support he did receive.  

Late Police Chief Alan Brown died unexpectedly last October while off duty, leaving that position open. At the end of last year, when asked if they wanted to pursue an island-wide police force or search for a chief, members of the Board of Selectmen chose to explore the island-wide department option. They changed their minds in January after hearing preliminary thoughts of how that department could be structured. Reed is now collaborating with board members Carolyn Ball and Chad Terry to find a police chief replacement. 

A short time before VanDongen’s dismissal, Town Clerk Marilyn Lowell had submitted her resignation to the town with her last day scheduled to be Jan. 29. After the board voted to remove VanDongen as town manager, Lowell told the Islander that her staying on as town clerk was “in question.” Following Reed’s first week at the town office, Lowell took two weeks off for vacation.  

During the Tuesday night board meeting, Lowell told the Islander she would be continuing in the town clerk role as long as an additional person could be hired to work in the Town Office.  

“I plan to advertise for a third person in the front office,” Reed told selectmen during his town manager report. He explained the position would be primarily a front desk position that would phase out the administrative assistant position created and appointed to Deputy Code Enforcement Officer Jesse Dunbar. Dunbar’s last day in the Town Office will be this Friday as he was recently appointed as deputy town manager in Tremont. 

Tremont Town Manager Chris Saunders will be leaving that position in June. Dunbar, who is also Tremont’s code enforcement officer, will take Saunders place at that time.  

At the end of last year, Deputy Town Clerk Debbie Clark took a position with the Southwest Harbor Water and Sewer District. Before his departure, VanDongen hired Becky Gatcomb to replace Clark in the front office. Also, at the end of last year, Harbormaster Adam Thurston accepted a job as deputy harbormaster for Mount Desert, leaving that position open. Jesse Gilley was hired by VanDongen to replace Thurston in January.  

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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