There were many allegations being made during a January 20, 2016 Mendon Selectman Meeting.
The Board, Town Council Michael J. Maccaro, Town Administrator Kimberly Newman, and Assistant Fire Chief Mike Zarella met to discuss allegations of an employee starting or spreading rumors about sex and pay raises. Police/Fire Chief Horn was invited to attend the meeting as well.
Maccaro advised the Board on January 12, 2016 he received a telephone call from Newman who was quite upset. According to Maccaro, she reported Zarella requested a copy of her employment contract. She also reported that she was told by several employees in various departments and buildings that Zarella was making derogatory statements regarding herself and Chairman Mark Reil, suggesting they were involved in an inappropriate sexual relationship and the relationship resulted in a new employment contract.
Maccaro decided to write a letter to the board regarding his conversation with Newman. Maccaro said he was concerned about the potential of a sexual harassment claim/hostile work environment claim and felt the town was obligated to look into the matter.
“At this time these are just allegations,” said Maccaro. “I know nothing more than what was reported to me by Miss Newman,” he said.
Maccaro said, “The purpose [of the meeting], I would suggest is to ask Mr. Zarella what his thoughts are on this, is there any truth to this, and depending on what we learn discuss a course of action.”
Zarella denies the allegations. “This is just hearsay,” he said.
“It’s a serious allegation and we have the responsibility to investigate it and that is why you are here,” said Chairman Mark Reil. “It’s not just hearsay it’s a serious legal issue,” he said.
“Let’s give a little bit of back history here,” said Zarella. “There is a rumor going around regarding a particular relationship between Ms. Newman and a member of the board. I did not start that rumor nor am I spreading that rumor,” he said.
Zarella, the union president for the Mendon Fire Department, requested a copy of Newman’s employment contract after learning she had recently recieved a 34% pay increase. According to Zarella negotiations have been contentious and the firemen have been offered minimal raises.
Zarella said he was, “Exercising his rights as a union leader, his rights to speech, and his right to gather information when he inquired if anyone heard if anyone was involved in a relationship. That would be an ethics violation, which would be illegal and which would then be subject to the whistle blowing act.”
Zarella was confused as to why he was being called before the Board. “Chief Horn doesn’t even know why I’m here tonight….Chief Horn is my boss. I answer to Chief Horn, I’m appointed by Chief Horn. I’m governed by the policies and procedures of the Mendon Fire Department. He is the person I answer to. He is the one who disciplines me,” said Zarella.
“I should have been notified of this,” said Chief Horn. “This should have been given to me to investigate as the appointed authority. I have absolute authority over the personnel. No one else does. I should have been called,” he said.
Selectmen Rich Schofield pushed back on Horn’s statements stating the board took this path on council’s recommendation.
Maccaro replied, “I don’t’ disagree with Chief Horn’s acknowledgement. He has the right to discipline any of the employees.”
“I just think this could have been handled a lot differently,” said Horn. “And honestly, some of the foolishness of this rumor wouldn’t be continued on at a public hearing like this. It just didn’t need to happen.”
The matter ended up in a public forum at Zarella’s request. The matter was originally scheduled to be held in executive session. Under open meeting laws, Zarella had the right to have an open meeting vs. a closed door meeting.
The meeting got heated when Zarella said he felt that he was in this situation as retaliation for inquiring about Newman’s employment contract.
Selectman Reil yelled, “Absolutely not,” to Zarella’s allegation.
Zarella was mid-sentence as to why he felt this was a retaliation when Schofield began to talk over him. Zarella attempted to finish his sentence when Reil cut Zarella off, banged his gavel and yelled, “Excuse me, let the selectman speak.” Reil then threatened to remove Zarella from the meeting.
At this point, Schofield explained why the meeting discussing Newman’s salary increase was missing audio stating Nancy was late to the meeting and the audio was not plugged in. Nancy’s tardiness was reported in the meeting minutes, not to embarrass her but to explain why the audio was missing.
“It’s just typical in this town, it’s just unbelievable,” said Schofield. “The motives that people try to impugn to this board of selectmen, myself even. Quite frankly I’ve have had enough of it,” he said. “There has been no attempt to retaliate against anything, anyone, for any reason. You had every right to ask for the contract,” he said.
Schofield said, “We renegotiated because Ms. Newman was going to leave with a way better offer.” According to Schofield, the board decided to renegotiate with Newman rather than spend the money to find and train someone new.
At this point Newman was frustrated the conversation had turned toward her contract and not remained focused on Zarella. “Can we clarify first? We are not here to discuss that. We are here to discuss the multiple accounts, from three different departments, of unprofessional behavior that was conducted on the Monday that he is referencing. Which has nothing to do with contract negotiation,” she said.
“This has to do with one employee’s alleged conduct throughout multiple buildings in the town. That’s what this is about. It’s not about what I’m getting paid or what he’s not getting paid. This is about his choice of action on that particular day and the things he may or may not have said,” Newman said.
“You are here to be able to answer to those concerns that were brought to me. That’s what you are her for,” said Newman. “You are not here to be disciplined which is why we invited Chief Horn,” she said. “He is an invited guest, just like you, to hear all of this because as an employee of the town you have rights, so we are here collectively as a board to hear the facts. And I’m pretty sure I heard you say that you didn’t spread the rumor but you were talking about the rumor. This is exactly what we are talking about here,” she said.
Zarella said, “If I asked somebody, and I will specifically say I was in the Town Hall after I met with you and I had asked two other people ‘have you heard who Kim may be dating’ and they said, ‘no, who?’ And I said ‘I’m not saying, I’m asking,’ and that’s the end of it.”
Zarella said, “Spreading a rumor would be going around and saying what your attorney said what I said, which I did not say….Tell me who I supposedly said what to.”
“We would love to do that and we would love to have an investigation because quite frankly your story doesn’t hold here,” said Newman. “Which is why we brought you in to hear your side. This is not a conversation about town hall that morning. This is about multiple locations, multiple! Do you understand?!”
Committee Member Christopher Burke said, “I guess I look at it this way. Mr. Zarella, obviously the board has a responsibility. You are a senior manager and I look upon you as a senior manager in our community. An accusation was brought up, there was a significant concern, it was brought up with town council, and town council advised this board. We took the advice of our town council. That’s the responsibility of this board. We are not saying that you did this. We are just saying there were accusations made. We were trying to do that in a private setting and due to the severity of accusations and the due senility of this. You preferred to do this in open meeting. That’s all it was. We as a board can ask for an independent investigation. We were just trying to address the accusations that were brought to us.”
“Are we in middle school here,” asked Zarella. “How do you bring me here without someone saying that I said something? I mean did I pass a note in study hall,” he said.
“Excuse me!” said Newman. “I’m the town administrator. I’m pretty sure if I have a serious concern I’m allowed to bring it to my employer which is the board of selectman. That’s what I’ve done,” she said.
“Can we again address what comments were made?” asked Zarella.
Chief Horn said, “We have allegations on both sides. But more importantly this should have been brought to me.”
“With what we got, considering it involves a board member. I think sitting down and having a discussion with you and all of us together was how we were going to move forward,” said Reil.
“But what you did was call him into a hearing,” said Horn.
“This is not a hearing,” said Maccaro. “No findings are being made,” he said.
“I have to say Chief, I understand what you’re saying,” said Schofield. “But there is absolutely no way that could have occurred. The reason there is no way we could have brought it to you prior to sitting down and having a meeting. We are not allowed to talk. (Referring to open meeting laws)”
“Town administrator should have immediately called me,” said Horn.
“Town administrator is the subject,” said Schofield.
“She is the alleged victim. She needs to reach out to me. I am the appointing authority. The law is very clear,” said Horn.
“I think the law is very clear that I am allowed to contact town council, which is what I did,” said Newman. “I do not need to speak with you before I speak with town council,” she said.
“What does need to occur, Ms. Newman, is you have to communicate with me,” said Horn. “You have to call me, you have to tell me that you have a problem with one of my employees. Then if you don’t like the way that I address it you bring it before my appointed authority,” he said.
Schofield explained the committee took the path recommended by Town Council.
Newman told Horn it was a courtesy on the board’s part that he was invited to the meeting.
Horn then called Newman out stating she violated Mendon’s sexual harassment policy. “You are required to investigate it. Not bring it in front of a hearing in front of the board,” he said.
“You are assuming that the only allegation here is sexual in nature. I have multiple concerns about the things that I’ve heard said,” she said.
“I didn’t know there were any other allegations,” said Horn.
Zarella attempted to find out what other allegations were out there. Town Council simply repeated what Newman reported.
Burke said, “I’m very concerned about the situation, I’m very disappointed about the situation as a board member. It’s unbecoming of a Senior Manger if this happened. I’m not saying it did but if did I’m very disappointed.”
Zarella stated this entire public display could have been avoided if he had received a response to his original request as to what the meeting was about.
The Board of Selectmen decided to hire an independent investigator to investigate the matter further. The investigator’s report will be sent to the Board and Horn. Horn will determine if the matter warrants any discipline and will conference with the Board regarding the results.
Newman expressed concerns on whether employees would feel comfortable coming forward because of this was “done in such an inappropriate forum.”
Maccaro said, “This was not an inappropriate forum. Mr. Zarella had the right to have an open meeting and that right trumps the will to want an executive session.”
Horn recognized that both Newman and Zarealla are in powerful positions within the town and suggested both be instructed not to speak with any town employees or engage on social media.
A Mendon resident present requested Reil recuse himself since he is also a subject of the complaint. Reil said, “That’s fair.”