Assembly to consider suspending manager with aim to fire
May 7, 2020
On Monday, May 11 assembly member Paul Rogers asked borough manager Debra Schnabel to resign and said that if she declines to step down, he will make a motion to begin the process of firing her at Tuesday's regular meeting.
Rogers confirmed to the CVN Tuesday morning that he intends to introduce a motion to suspend borough manager Debra Schnabel indefinitely and plan an executive session to meet with the borough attorney to discuss her termination.
The motion is not on the agenda and the CVN learned of Rogers' conversation with Schnabel through an independent source.
During his meeting with Schnabel Monday morning, Rogers said he spoke to her for about 20 minutes regarding his issues with what he said is her poor performance.
"I told her, 'I don't think you're working with the assembly. I think you're working against the assembly. I think you have your own agenda and want to do things your way,'" Rogers told the CVN Tuesday morning. "I said, 'You're not the king. You're not the dictator.' She really doesn't seem to quite understand that."
Rogers referenced several instances of what he described as irrational and problematic behavior including Schnabel's use of borough equipment and staff to sand her private road on Fourth Avenue after a snowstorm in January without compensating the borough, and using public equipment and staff to improve state land at the Battery Point trailhead.
Rogers, also a personnel committee member, investigated those issues after Don Turner Jr. lodged complaints against Schnabel last year. Among the complaints was that the borough was violating code by maintaining Schnabel's St. James Place trailer court, which is on a section of Fourth Avenue. The borough had plowed the road within the trailer park for decades, and city documents from the late 1980s indicate the service would continue.
In response to Turner's complaint, Schnabel directed public facilities director Ed Coffland in December 2019 to stop maintaining the section of Fourth Avenue that runs through the trailer court. The following month after a snow storm, she asked Coffland to send a truck to sand the road and said she would pay for the service as a private business owner. According to borough code, assembly approval is required for the use of borough equipment to improve private property.
"I was wrong," Schnabel told the CVN. "I was wrong to think that the borough sanding truck could be hired to sand Fourth Avenue."
At a personnel committee meeting Monday, Schnabel said she has yet to pay for the service when questioned by Rogers. Rogers drafted a 27-page report in response to Turner's complaints. The report was forwarded to the assembly for review at its May 26 meeting.
Rogers said he was also upset that Schnabel directed borough staff two years ago to spread gravel at the Battery Point trailhead, state-owned land, after flooding damaged a nearby section of borough road.
"You don't get to decide unilaterally that you can go do some work on state property and it's for the good of the borough," Rogers said. "You can't spend resources and materials the borough is responsible for on property that's not your own. I'm beside myself with this kind of thinking. It's not rational."
Rogers and assembly member Gabe Thomas also said they were upset that Schnabel asked businesses to post flyers listing health mandate information. On Saturday, May 2, Schnabel went into Haines Home Building Supply and asked customers why they weren't wearing masks.
"She shouldn't have put her manager hat on," Thomas said of Schnabel's actions at the hardware store and other businesses. He told the CVN he's concerned about what he says is Schnabel's overreach and how she has a tendency to debate with the assembly.
"I don't like her approach sometimes. It's pretty forceful," Thomas said. "You're supposed to give us the information and let us discuss it."
He said he's unsure how he will vote, but pointed out that "at least the assembly is following the correct process" as opposed to when a former assembly fired former manager Bill Seward in 2016. The assembly fired Seward with cause during a performance evaluation that Seward asked to be public. But the assembly failed to contact the borough attorney before firing Seward, a requirement for insurance purposes.
Schnabel told the CVN that she recognizes that she can be cavalier, which is inappropriate for her position, but questioned whether her actions warrant dismissal. "I would say, in my own judgment, no," Schnabel said. "Does it need to be addressed? Do I need to work with the assembly to develop a better understanding of how we can communicate immediately and effectively? Yes. I'm very open to a discussion or a plan of improvement."
She said losing a borough manager in the midst of the budget process and COVID-19 pandemic would be harmful to the borough.
Rogers said he and Mayor Jan Hill have discussed who would replace Schnabel if she is suspended or fired, but have not identified anyone. "We had some discussion and the general thinking is we can get by better without somebody at the moment than we're doing right now with somebody," Rogers said.
Schnabel's hire was controversial in 2018. Hill was opposed to the hire. She called the hire a "set up job" during a public meeting and charged the assembly with violating borough charter because she was not hired "solely on professional qualifications." Many community members advocated for the hire of former public facilities director Brad Ryan, who had served as interim manager twice, rather than Schnabel, who had no municipal management experience.
Assembly members Stephanie Scott and Zephyr Sincerny both said Schnabel deserves an official performance evaluation.
"If there are performance concerns about staff or any employee it should be brought through an evaluation process and staff should be notified of the situation in an effort to address and change that," Sincerny said.
Schnabel has not received a performance evaluation since August 2018, three months after her hire.
Scott said the Fourth Avenue issue has been long resolved along with other issues in Turner's complaints. She said she doesn't understand why these issues are being used as evidence to fire Schnabel.
At Monday's personnel committee meeting, Rogers said how she handled each issue was indicative of her inability to manage the borough.
"It's clear that there's people who are not happy with her," Scott said. "I need more information about what is actually the problem with this particular manager. It doesn't seem like a great time to do this. I want the public to be able to chime in, to say what they want, too."
Assembly member Jerry Lapp declined to comment and member Brenda Josephson did not respond by publication time.