Town Manager's Department Gutted
Bar Harbor Terminates Its Communications Coordinator and Sustainability Coordinator
BAR HARBOR—It’s been a month of upheaval at the town manager’s department in Bar Harbor. Town Manager Kevin Sutherland’s received a severance package that was the equivalent to 28 weeks of pay, which equates to about $65,000. However, Sutherland wasn’t the only staff member let go. Communications Coordinator Maya Caines and Sustainability Coordinator Laura Berry were both terminated on Wednesday, February 8.
Interim Town Manager and Finance Director Sarah Gilbert confirmed this in a response to an email on Saturday morning.
“The manager's office currently has vacancies for the sustainability coordinator and the communications coordinator,” she said.
Neither vacancy is currently listed on the town’s website.
Both coordinators began in early fall of 2022. The communications coordinator is a public information officer for the town who relays and coordinates questions from the media and public to appropriate town staff, updates and/or redesigns the website and other public-facing town messaging and information. Caines also created “Manager’s Minutes” and other outreach programs and ideas including a potential town-wide text alert program.
The sustainability coordinator has wide-ranging responsibilies related to integrating sustainability and environmental considerations into the town's operations and practices, including solar energy, energy effieicncy, waste management, and data collection and analysis projects, working with organizations and businesses on community-wide sustainability initiatives, and obtaining grants and funding to support this work.
Both Caines and Berry were asked a week before their termination to create updated job descriptions and told that their positions would be moved out of the town manager’s department. They were both in six-month probationary periods, which allowed them to be terminated at will and without cause.
No cause was given to either via letter or in oral communication after an email was sent to their accounts and they then met with Gilbert who gave them the news on Wednesday. Both women were under 30 and live in Bar Harbor, creating a younger demographic within the town’s staff within the municipal building. Both also had extensive experience prior to their time working for the town.
Both positions were created by Sutherland and his budget proposals for the current budget year. The sustainability coordinator typically gives updates to the Climate Change Task Force. Her update is still on the task force’s published agenda for this Monday.
Neither woman was asked to sign anything or given an opportunity to have a discussion about their employment.
The situation causes concern for both women, not merely because of their sudden lack of employment, but for the community.
“We both are residents of Bar Harbor,” Caines said. “We love it here. We saw an opportunity to be involved in our local community.”
The involvement of two residents under 30 also inspired other people of that age demographic, a demographic that the Town Council and staff often talk about needing to be encouraged to participate in town government.
They also leave behind several projects about public access and communication and also climate change, sustainability, and big visioning goals implementation. Neither knew who would take over their projects or if there is staff that could. The planning department often speaks of needing additional staff to handle its workload. There were many projects, they said, that they don’t know how any other staff can take over.
That is the most disappointing part, both said.
Part of their employment was to create bandwidth for department heads to focus on other important aspects of their jobs rather than finding and implementing grants (Berry), creating public outreach and communications and even helping residents and reporters gather information (Caines).
In their five months in the positions, the women made an impact in both small and large ways.
“Maya and I do live in Bar Harbor and we’re part of this community,” Berry said, which allows them to have a bit more of a pulse in building relationships in a town climate that many believe is becoming increasingly polarized. They shop at Hannaford’s, get a drink at the Barnacle, hike the trails of Acadia.
When Deputy Fire Chief John Lennon hoped to get participation in his workshops providing Narcan training to businesses and restaurants, both women walked up and down the streets of Bar Harbor soliciting bartenders and restaurant staff to attend. Many did and because they did have been able to administer Narcan to multiple people who have overdosed in town since October, Caines said. Tasks like that, along with bigger projects, led to multiple 50-plus-hour weeks.
The warming center during the Christmas storm was staffed by Berry, Caines, and Sutherland. It was a time to not only make sure that the residents had a place to be warm over a multiple-day power outage, but also a time to talk to people and build relationships.
“I genuinely do feel concerned about what this means long-term for the town,” Caines said.
There has also been a bit of restructuring in the town manager’s department according to Gilbert.
“The data architect/interim assessor is now working under the Finance Department, as well as an assessing technician. Assessing has been a department within finance for 20 plus years. Before that, the position reported to planning,” Gilbert clarified.
SUTHERLAND’S SETTLEMENT PACKAGE
This information was initially reported by Lincoln Millstein on the Quietside Journal on Thursday. According to the separation agreement, the town will also cover his benefits for 28 weeks. This amount coincides with his original employment contract. Millstein received and published both documents via a Freedom of Information access request.
Both Sutherland’s January 25 letter of resignation and a Town Council statement said he was leaving for personal reasons as did the severance agreement. The agreement had a stipulation that he needed to resign voluntarily by 5 p.m. that same day. There was an executive session held about a personnel matter two nights before on January 23. The actual separation agreement was created January 24.
While there is no typical definition of what a severance package is for executives, it often entails an agreement between the employer and employee as well as pay. That pay is often determined in the initial employment contract. The employee also usually agrees to not communicate about their former employer in a negative way. It usually includes compensation and benefits. Sutherland’s conforms to all of those factors.
According to Drew Lewis, an employment law attorney, “The severance agreement is usually several pages long and often contains various parts, including a release of all legal claims, confidentiality agreement, and non-disparagement agreement.”
The inclusion of a proposed severance package is given throughout Hancock County to hospital administrators, chief executives in towns and nonprofits, banks and other businesses.
Sutherland was the direct supervisor for both Caines and Berry. Neither knew that his employment was ending, they said. Though Caines was the communications coordinator, she only heard about his departure on January 26 prior to the release of his departure via a statement by Council Chair Valerie Peacock. Gilbert was named interim town manager on January 31. The town manager search is being conducted by the Maine Municipal Association.
During Caines’ and Berry’s tenure their positions entailed the following:
Caines’ responsibilities included but were not limited to:
Dealing with FOAA/FOIA requests;
Monthly newsletter creation, build-out, and coordination;
Social media management and monitoring content development;
Planning and organizing community events;
Representing the town at community events;
Developing video content;
Creation and implementation of branding;
Redesign of website and resultant committee support and participation;
Fielding communication with media and residents;
Reviewing all media published pertaining to Bar Harbor;
Scheduling interviews for staff and councils;
Crafting press releases for police, fire, and major events;
Tracking citizen responses to press releases;
Compose press releases ahead of council meetings for multiple scenarios;
Working with council chair and manager to finalize statements;
Sitting in meetings with town manager and attorneys to develop public statements;
Fostering a collaborative relationship with council and supporting priorities and messaging.
Berry’s projects included but were not limited to:
Managing the planning and construction of the 1.5 MW municipal Higgins Pit Solar Array;
Overseeing the administration of the existing solar power purchase agreement;
Managing net energy billing agreements and acting as town’s point of contact with Versant for 48 electricity accounts;
Managing and overseeing the municipal building electrification project and the $50,000 grant;
Energy audits for facilities and energy data management;
Collaboration with the Maine DOT and others to identify and map transportation infrastructure vulnerabilities and major economic impacts to town given likely climate change scenarios;
Point person in the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and Future Community Resilience Partnership program;
Procurement and management of $120,000 regional community action grant;
Work with to develop and submit a $4 million grant proposal for transfer station infrastructure upgrades to increase municipal solid waste diversion and recycling rates;
Drafting sustainability metrics for planning, policy and decision making for the town;
Staffing bimonthly Climate Emergency Task Force;
Representing the town manager at the League of Towns.
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The departure of these two unnecessary positions creates an opportunity to start reducing the ridiculous overspending this town has embarked on over the past few years. Leadership needs to put our money where their mouth is. AFFORDABILITY…
Why did the previously supportive Town Council suddenly buy out Sutherland's very generous Employment Agreement with an extraordinarily generous Release Agreement (payment of 6 months salary, health and retirement benefits payments, unused leave payments.) If The Council terminated Sutherland's employment for violations of state law and terms of the town charter - for which there seems to be some evidence already in the public record - then they did not owe him any severance. The question is, did Sutherland's actions rise to legal violations and had they been approved by the Town Council? If the answer is Yes, then that explains the threat Sutherland posed to and the leverage he had over town councilors. If the answer is No, then why the rush to get him out of office.