Assembly narrowly fires manager: mayor breaks tie


May 21, 2020

The Haines Borough Assembly voted Tuesday evening to fire borough manager Debra Schnabel without cause, with Mayor Jan Hill breaking a 3-3 tie vote.

Assembly member Jerry Lapp, Stephanie Scott and Zephyr Sincerny were opposed to the motion to fire Schnabel while members Paul Rogers, Brenda Josephson, Gabe Thomas and Jan Hill voted in support.

The assembly met in executive session with its attorney for more than two hours before the decision was made.

Hill declined to comment after the meeting. Lapp said he voted against the motion to terminate the manager because he believed in giving people second chances.

The Mayor was directed by the assembly in a 4-2 vote to write a prepared statement that will be released to the community within 48 hours. Sincerny and Scott opposed the motion.

Schnabel sought legal counsel after the assembly voted last week 4-2 to schedule the meeting to discuss her termination. In a letter to borough attorney Brooks Chandler, Schnabel’s attorney, Sara Bloom, wrote that the borough violated Schnabel’s employment contract by failing to provide a performance evaluation on an annual basis.

Bloom charged Rogers with defamation in a public meeting that wasn’t properly noticed to the public. “The Mayor allowed the public to spew defamatory remarks during the meeting. At one point, Paul Rogers mimicked manager Schnabel’s voice in a demeaning, unprofessional, and gender-discriminatory manner,” Bloom wrote.

Schnabel is an at-will employee who can be fired without cause.

“It is not legal or ethical to publicly defame her in a public assembly meeting without notice or due process or place her on suspension with the intention of terminating her employment and deem it termination without cause,” Bloom wrote. “Because she was suspended with the intention of being terminated, and that Mr. Rogers was able to go on a diatribe as to his unfounded opinions as to her poor performance as a Borough Manager, it appears that this proposed termination is for cause. However, there is a lack of evidence that Manager Schnabel should be terminated for cause. The manner in which the borough handled this matter was a clear breach of the borough’s duty of good faith and fair dealing.”

The vote to fire the manager came a week after Rogers asked Schnabel to resign during a private meeting with her and the Mayor. He told Schnabel that if she didn’t resign, he’d make a motion to fire her the following day at the assembly’s regular meeting.

The public was made aware of the motion through news reports. The action was not on the published agenda for the meeting.

At the meeting, Rogers described numerous flaws and failings that he’s perceived since observing Schnabel’s work as manager including a tendency to advance her own agenda and disregard assembly direction, use of borough equipment and staff to sand her private road on Fourth Avenue after a snowstorm in January without compensating the borough, and disregarding individual assembly members’ desires to stop allowing the library to check out books to the public after the state closed public libraries. Schnabel continued to allow library checkout services from the foyer after seeking input from the state librarian who advised that such practices were acceptable. At one point during last week’s meeting, he mimicked her response to a question he had asked and said later said he was disgusted by her behavior.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Schnabel read a prepared statement to the assembly. She said she sought legal counsel because the motion to discuss her termination did not include an opportunity to discuss Rogers’ allegations against her.

“In listening again to the recording of the meeting, it is not difficult to see me as assembly member Rogers describes me,” Schnabel said. “It is his story. I understand why he characterized me as flippant, arrogant and completely irresponsible. I understand that assembly member Josephson is disappointed in my performance. Formal evaluations were designed to improve communications between the assembly and its manager.”

Borough clerk Alekka Fullerton, who is serving as interim borough manager, said next week’s regular agenda will include discussion of the process for hiring a new manager. Included in the motion to fire Schnabel was the invitation to allow her to respond to any statements made during public meetings regarding her employment contract.

Schnabel wasn’t at the meeting after executive session. She told the CVN Wednesday afternoon that she received no official communication regarding her termination from the assembly or Mayor and was unaware of the opportunity to speak until informed by the CVN Wednesday afternoon. She said she had hoped to get a hearing with the assembly to tell her side of the story about the allegations and that she doesn’t understand Rogers’ motion to speak to the contract. She said she plans to speak to her attorney about Tuesday’s motion.

“Do I want to gobble up resources, community resources, just to prove or illustrate that there has been an injustice done to me?” Schnabel asked. “Most people know there’s been an injustice done to me. What advantage is there to proving that? I’m weighing that. I’m weighing the advantages and disadvantages.”

Schnabel received a performance evaluation in 2017, three months after her hire and a year later in 2018. In 2018, assembly members Tom Morphet and Josephson praised her passion, but said it often led to her advocating for her own agenda. She has not been evaluated since.

The assembly met with attorney Brooks Chandler in executive session Tuesday to discuss her termination. After the public vote to terminate Schnabel effective May 20, Scott said she was disappointed in the process the assembly took in firing Schnabel. She said the manager should have received an evaluation that would have let the public become aware of issues some assembly members had with her.

“Now we have divided the community sufficiently and I am concerned about that especially in this time when we really need to take care of each other,” Scott said. “I’m not sure how we’re going to move from this point on, but I hope we do make an effort.”

Rogers said last week said he and the Mayor discussed before last week’s vote who would replace Schnabel as manager. “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 last Tuesday morning.

Written and voiced public comment was in overwhelming support of retaining Schnabel as manager. More than 30 people either wrote or spoke to the assembly.

“A termination at this time would only set the staff in turmoil and has the potential to paralyze the local government,” wrote John Hagen. “I am concerned that this punitive action is rooted in the fickle political whims of Haines rather than a violation of code and law. If there are concerns that the assembly has towards the conduct of employees of the borough that are not addressed in code or other documents, please seek to address those.”

Spencer Douthit thanked the assembly for bringing their concerns about Schnabel to light, but said the responsible step forward was to cooperatively address those concerns. “I think that choosing to terminate the manger before addressing any concerns is irresponsible and loses my respect, as a resident of this valley.”

Norm Smith said firing Schnabel is bad for Haines and that the cost of finding a new manager is unfair to taxpayers. “Debra deserves to be evaluated. Committees are set up to evaluate people,” he said. “It’s not fair to her. It’s not fair to the community. It’s not fair to us people who pay the taxes. It’s just not right with what’s going on here.”

Barbara Mulford, a business owner and chairperson of the tourism advisory board, wrote the only letter critical of Schnabel. Similar to Rogers, she said Schnabel’s behavior was often unprofessional. Mulford said her attempts to address issues such as the budget and borough tourism code were stifled by Schnabel.

“I have learned several things from Debra,” Mulford wrote. “It’s okay to sigh loudly in exasperation at a public meeting. It’s okay to cup your chin, shake your head with your mouth open in disbelief or disapproval as an audience member of a public meetings.”

When asked after the meeting if public comment influenced her vote, Josephson said she’s heard privately from residents who have concerns with Schnabel. “I’ve personally been reached out not only in written comments but in phone calls as well as directly and there was a broad cross-section of perspectives.”

Thomas said he wouldn’t comment on why he voted to fire Schnabel.

Schnabel’s hire was controversial in 2018. Hill was opposed to the hire. At a public meeting, she repeated an accusation made by an assembly member at the time that described Schnabel’s hire as a set up, 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 a degree in public administration, but no municipal management experience at the time.

Since 2008, borough assemblies have fired three managers: Robert Venables, Tom Bolen and Bill Seward. The assembly fired Seward in 2016 with cause during a performance evaluation that Seward asked to be public. The assembly failed to contact the borough attorney before firing Seward, a requirement for insurance purposes and Seward sued the borough for wrongful termination.

*This story has been updated to correct the dates of Schnabel's evaluations.


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