The Haines Borough Assembly dismissed borough manager Bill Seward in a 4-2 vote Wednesday night. The decision followed an over three-hour-long evaluation in which each assembly member was critical of the new manager, who had been on the job six months.
At Seward’s request, the majority of the emotional meeting happened in public instead of in executive session. Newly-elected assembly member Tom Morphet started the discussion with a written statement.
“Mr. Seward has made continuous missteps that reflect his judgment and diligence are not at the caliber required to do this job effectively,” Morphet said. “Moreover, I do not believe these skills can be taught.”
Morphet listed sixteen examples to support his point. In July, a couple weeks after he started the job, Seward tried to put the small boat harbor expansion on hold and divert the funding to Lutak Dock. Also that month, Seward banned two residents from the borough offices and tried to bolster security at the building. The assembly later shut that effort down. Morphet said these are actions of a ‘rogue’ manager who doesn’t follow directions from his boss, the assembly.
“The manager takes actions outside his job description, lacks understanding of borough laws, exceeds the parameters of his authority and ignores the chain of command and his subordinates,” Morphet said.
Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer emphasized that they hired Seward knowing he had no municipal experience. Seward spent more than 20 years in the Coast Guard before applying to the Haines manager position.
“It was the entire assembly’s responsibility to try to offer the training and guidance and support he needed,” Friedenauer said. “Whether that can be rectified I don’t know. I just want to share in some of the responsibility. If things aren’t going as swimmingly as we hoped I think we need to own that a little bit.”
But Friedenauer also had concerns. She said several borough employees called her, unsolicited, to share negative experiences they had with Seward.
“It’s hard to un-hear those things,” she said.
Friedenauer said the employee concerns included a lack of objectivity, a challenging atmosphere, disrespect, preconceived bias, and lack of understanding about municipal structure.
The assembly also brought up an email they received recounting a phone call Seward allegedly made to an engineering firm that employs Haines resident Gershon Cohen. Cohen’s boss, David DelPorto said Seward threatened his business.
“I think the biggest thing that’s recently come up is this business about threatening a company owner with blackballing them,” said Assembly member Ron Jackson. “It shocked me when I read that because it’s not the persona that I’ve come to know. It just seemed like a totally different person.”
The meeting went into executive session to discuss the email. That part of the discussion was behind closed doors because it included another person, Cohen.
The contrast Jackson referred to was a theme in the assembly comments. They said Seward seemed like a nice, generous person when he interacted with them. But then they would hear about interactions he had with other people that showed a different side.
When Seward was given the chance to speak, he admitted he made mistakes. He said he tried to base decisions on assembly input, but…
“Trying to work for seven bosses is also sometimes challenging, because you’re all very diverse, you all have different wisdom, different perspectives, and whatnot,” Seward said.
Friedenauer asked Seward, taking everything he’s heard into account, how he would move forward if he stayed on as manager.
“You know folks, I’m here to stay,” Seward said. “I’m gonna learn from it. You gave me tons of good, constructive feedback. And I’ll take this feedback and do everything I can to improve.”
Friedenauer pressed Seward on what specifically he needed from the assembly to improve. Seward told the assembly members to ‘pop in his office’ or email him when they have issues. After a while, Friednauer spoke up again.
“I wanted to be wooed with the question I asked you,” she said. “I felt like it was two different dichotomies again. You were like, ‘I’m here to stay.’ And I was like ‘alright, let’s do this.’ So I was ready to hear a plan. And I didn’t.”
Assemblyman Mike Case proposed giving Seward a second chance. He suggested the assembly put Seward on a three-month probationary period and re-evaluate him then.
“I don’t want to make this a revolving manager door where every six months or year or year and half we try to get a new manager,” Case said. “We’re never going to get the perfect manager.”
But other assembly members expressed hesitation with Case’s suggestion. They said they were unsure three months would make a difference.
“Bill is such a sweet guy, and yet there’s this other side that comes out,” said Jackson. “And I don’t know if that’s something that can change because we put some things down on a list.”
Morphet made a motion to terminate Seward’s contract for cause. He said the assembly shouldn’t settle.
“I don’t think we can have standards high enough for this position,” Morphet said.
Mayor Jan Hill defended Seward. She pleaded with the assembly to reject Morphet’s motion.
“An evaluation is a tool, not a weapon,” Hill said. “And tonight it feels like you’re all axe-throwers. And I’m really sad.”
The motion to terminate Seward’s contract passed, 4-2. Morphet, Friedenauer, Jackson and Tresham Gregg voted in favor, Case and Heather Lende were opposed.
That decision was met with furious responses from former assembly member Diana Lapham and resident Don Turner, who were in the audience. Lapham called the decision an ‘atrocity’ and Turner said he would start a petition to recall Morphet.
After the hours of emotional discussion, the assembly adjourned without addressing next steps for the manager position. As of Thursday, borough clerk Julie Cozzi was serving as acting manager.