TRURO — The select board voted 4-1 on June 28 to extend the town’s contract with Town Manager Darrin Tangeman. The vote came during an executive session and was announced by chair Kristen Reed at a public meeting of the board the next day. The only negative vote was cast by vice chair Sue Areson, Reed told the Independent on July 3.
The decision came in the wake of a campaign urging the board not to renew the contract, which included a June 30 deadline for notifying the town manager that his tenure would end with his current contract on Jan. 3, 2024. As of June 29, the board had received at least 65 emails calling for Tangeman’s ouster, with a litany of complaints about his performance.
Areson did not respond to a message asking about her vote on extending the contract. At an open session that preceded the closed one on June 28, the board decided to authorize an independent investigation of a complaint that Areson had violated the town charter by seeking negative information about Tangeman from town employees. (See separate article in this week’s edition.)
The campaign to dismiss Tangeman focused at first on his management style and on perceptions that under his leadership the town has experienced rapidly increasing taxes and is in danger of “suburbanization” because of his supposed advocacy for the development of affordable housing at the town-owned 70-acre Walsh property. More recently, many of the complaints have focused on the siting of a proposed DPW facility.
“He is taking this town in the wrong direction and does not fit with what we should be doing,” wrote Daniel Slater in a June 25 email to the board calling for Tangeman’s removal. “We want to remain a low cost quite small town. I do not support in any way building a new large DPW building.”
Some correspondents have noted that many of the complaints about Tangeman are based on misunderstandings of the town manager’s duties and authority. They argue that he does not set policy or make decisions about whether to build new housing, and that he is not responsible for tax increases because the town budget is set by the select board and approved by town meeting voters.
“Please renew his contract,” wrote Mark Roux on June 27. “I believe that much of the unhappiness with him [is] from individuals who do not understand how a Massachusetts town works.”
“Those trying to oust him are just the usual group that mostly live in NY and want to keep this an enclave of the rich with no housing or services for anyone else,” wrote Carole Robbins on June 26. “None of the things they are complaining about have anything to do with him.”
Reed has announced that Tangeman’s performance review will be discussed by the select board in an open session at its next meeting on July 11. Some questions have arisen about the openness of that review and whether the board’s way of conducting it complies with the requirements of the Mass. Open Meeting Law.
Over the past several months, the members of the select board met with Tangeman in private one-on-one sessions to evaluate his performance. According to Reed, that was also how Tangeman’s predecessor, former Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer, was evaluated. Before those one-on-one meetings, all the parties including Tangeman himself filled out standardized evaluation forms.
The Open Meeting Law states that “where a public body is discussing an employee evaluation, considering applicants for a position, or discussing the qualifications of any individual, these discussions should be held in open session.” But because one-on-one meetings do not involve a quorum of the board, they technically don’t fall under the law’s requirements.
“It sounds like a work-around,” said Mike Fee, a lawyer who lives in Truro. “I don’t know all of the details, but it at least appears that by working in one-on-one sessions they’re going around the intent and purpose of the law. Transparency is the goal.”
“All the town manager performance evaluations were scored as acceptable or higher by all members of the select board,” Reed said when she announced the board’s vote on Tangeman’s contract. She added that “no formal complaints have ever been levied or pending against the town manager” and that he has never violated the town charter or Mass. General Laws.
The individual evaluations are supposed to be confidential. Asked how she knew the results of the other board members’ evaluations, Reed wrote in an email that Tangeman and Town Counsel David Jenkins “gave me the results. I did not see the individual evaluations.”
According to the state attorney general’s website, even if Reed had seen the evaluations it might not have constituted an Open Meeting Law violation. “Members of a public body may create individual evaluations and submit them for compilation into a master evaluation to be discussed at an open meeting,” an explanation on the site says. “As a best practice, to avoid the appearance of improper deliberation, members should submit their evaluations to someone who is not a member of the public body.” In the absence of an administrative assistant, “an individual member may receive and compile the evaluations.”
But that is permissible only for one member of the board. In the case Mary Alice Boelter & Others v. Board of Selectmen of Wayland (2018), a select board was found to have violated the law by circulating “individual and composite evaluations of the town administrator” that “contained opinions.”
Under the Mass. Open Meeting Law, there are 10 legitimate reasons for holding an executive or closed session. The select board’s executive session on Tangeman’s contract cited the second reason: “To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel or to conduct collective bargaining sessions or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.” Performance evaluations, which are about an employee’s competence, are not a listed reason to hold an executive session.
The Independent asked for clarification of the select board’s procedures from Town Counsel Jenkins, but Tangeman would not approve his answering questions from a reporter. Jenkins’s “recommendation to me was that he should not be weighing in on an issue like this or providing legal advice to the press,” Tangeman said.
Asked what materials will be made public regarding the decision at the board’s July 11 meeting, Reed wrote, “That is still being determined by town counsel and select board preference, but a summary memo of the evaluation will be a minimum deliverable for the packet.”