February 17. 2013 10:14PM

At town hall , openness pays, Durham official says

Union Leader Correspondent

At a recent meeting of Durham's town council, the good and bad of Town Administrator Todd Selig's 12 years of service were openly discussed, as were the details of his new four-year contract.

It is in stark contrast to the way things are done in some communities in New Hampshire.

Under the state's right-to-know law, Selig has the option of requesting that the annual review be conducted in non-public session, but he has never chosen to exercise it.

Detailed updates about town business emailed weekly to residents, employees and elected officials, annual right-to-know workshops held for every board and committee member in town and a policy of making sure every email between Selig and one town councilor is immediately shared with every other member of the council are just a few examples of how this policy of openness is put into practice.

"At the core, we, appointed and elected officials at the local level, are public servants and it's important that the public can observe what it is that we're doing in a very open and understandable way and when the public can do that. Whether they like what they see or dislike what they see, they are able to engage productively," Selig said.

Amherst administrator

Several other communities around the state, however, are embroiled in issues stemming from non-public decisions about public officials. In at least three communities, administrators have been placed on paid leave with little or no explanation, leaving the public left wondering what happened.

Amherst Town Administrator Jim O'Mara quietly returned to his job in mid-January after being placed on paid leave six weeks earlier - with no explanation made to the public.

It was not until after O'Mara's return that town officials said his leave was related to an investigation about a dump truck purchase - an investigation that found no evidence of wrong-doing on the part of any town employee, including O'Mara. Town officials denied right-to-know requests made by the New Hampshire Union Leader, other news outlets and a local citizens' group.

Raymond superintendent

In January, Raymond School Superintendent Jean Richards reached a "confidential separation agreement" with the school district after being placed on paid administrative leave in September, again with no explanation.

The agreement was recently released after the New Hampshire Union Leader filed a right-to-know request, but it provided no information as to why Richards was placed on leave, or why she chose to resign, beyond a mutually agreed upon one-sentence statement. Richards will retain her title and her pay through the end of this school year while performing no duties for the district, and will receive health insurance benefits for another full year.

Ron Brickett, business administrator for the Raymond School District, said including Richards' already-budgeted salary for the 2012-13 school year, the cost to the district will end up being over $200,000.

Manchester principal

Manchester High School West Principal MaryEllen McGorry was placed on paid leave in September. Last month the school board approved a deal that will allow her to resign from her $103,700-a-year position in April, while continuing to receive health benefits through June. Suspended a week after McGorry was her secretary, Denise Michael; she remains on paid leave.

The bill for an investigation into McGorry's conduct has already topped $100,000, in addition to the cost of McGorry's severance package. The Employment Practices Group, a Massachusetts-based firm, is continuing its investigation of Michael.

Through it all, officials have given no details to the public.

Breeding suspicion

"When I see headlines in communities like Amherst or Raymond, it makes me feel very sad because it has the effect of breeding suspicion and mistrust and it is incredibly disruptive to getting the work of the people done," Selig said.

He said secrecy breeds a host of problems, from suspicion about decisions being made, to questions about how funds are being spent.

"And so while it can sometimes be harder in the short run being quite frank about what you are thinking of doing, or have done, in the long run it's the right path because it fosters trust and respect and dialogue and understanding and it encourages productive engagement and so in Durham, we've worked very hard over many years to create that environment," Selig said.

Selig said there are certainly situations where issues, particularly those relating to personnel, should be discussed in non-public session.

"But what a lot of communities don't understand is you have to say something. You have to provide some context that gives the public a sense of what's going on," Selig said.

Durham Town Councilor and longtime resident Bill Cote said he has worked with municipalities all over the state during his 20-year career.

"I understand there are some personnel issues that are confidential, but I think (municipalities) need to be much more open with that," Cote said, adding that this is particularly the case when taxpayer money is involved.

Cote and gives full credit to Selig for bringing an attitude of openness to Durham.

"I like to point to Durham as an example of how things can be done in municipal government," he said. "It works. Plain and simple."

New Hampshire Union Leader Staff Writer Ted Seifer and Correspondent Kimberly Houghton contributed to this report.