Lower Merion manager's contract postponed, debate continues

(left to right) Before the debate over the contract, Commissioner Scott Zelov, Bobbie McElroy and Hank Wilson of Bryn Mawr Beautiful, and Bryn Mawr Business Association Kathy Bogosian and businessman Dave Fish of John Fish & Son, received a check of $500 fundraised for Bryn Mawr Beautiful.

When Ardmore resident Bob Guzzardi approached the podium during the Lower Merion Board of Commissioners Feb. 15 meeting’s public comment, he expressed a frustration echoed by a number of township residents over the secrecy regarding Township Manager Doug Cleland’s contract.

“This CEO contract with the township manager has been kept a secret…we should know what the terms and conditions are, and it should be discussed in public, not in a back room meetings,” Guzzardi said. “I thought this secrecy issue had been resolved, apparently it hasn’t.”

The fact that the agenda item was postponed for discussion until March 6 didn’t ease the concerns of Guzzardi, his fellow residents and a few commissioners, who were notified after Commissioner Jenny Brown sent out an e-mail to her constituents, revealing the vague personnel matter on the administrative and human resources committee was over the township manager’s contract.

After trying to investigate for further details of the agenda item, Brown and her fellow commissioners received an e-mail from Board President Liz Rogan at 8 a.m., informing them the matter was in reference to the manager’s contract.

Brown’s e-mail stated the township manager has been working without a contract since the beginning of 2012, and that a committee comprised of Commissioners Richard Churchill, Daniel Bernheim and Scott Zelov tried to develop a proposed contract.

However, the three “were unable to agree, with Churchill and Bernheim desiring more generous terms for the Manager and Zelov desiring more reasonable terms,” Brown’s e-mail states.

The e-mail also included salary data complied by Zelov for township managers in nearby municipalities. According to these figures, the township manager makes $224,449, which includes deferred compensation and longevity bonus in addition to his base salary.

The remaining township manager salaries range from Radnor’s, who makes the second highest at $182,000, to the lowest in Whitpain Township with a salary of $132,500.

When the administrative and human resources committee began, Churchill motion to postpone discussion on the matter, and said there was nothing to report.

“I will take responsibility for having this on the agenda,” Churchill said. “It should not have been on the agenda…I apologize to the board if it caused some discomfort.”

The motion to table the matter meant the issue would have to wait for commissioner comment until the old business portion of the meeting.

That didn’t prevent public comment, which only had three speakers – Guzzardi, Federation of Lower Merion Civic Associations President Hugh Gordon and Gladwyne resident Bernie McNamee.

Gordon felt the ordeal demonstrated that it was less than adequate public notice for public participation on the matter.

McNamee said the public ought to see the terms of agreement, and that they should include a requirement for monthly operating performance and financial reports from the manager.

“The hiring of the township manager is one of the most important roles for each and every board member,” McNamee said. “I love you all, and know you’re here to help, but if you’re not asking for reports, I have to conclude you really have no clue what you’re doing.”

When Commissioners Brown and Lewis Gould were able to comment on the matter, both expressed they thought it was inappropriate for the burden to fall on Churchill’s shoulders.

“This was the first time there was a contract to vote on, and it’s clear there was an intention to vote tonight,” Brown said. “Certainly I did not know there was some sort of agreement, with the board never having discussed it in executive session…I was very unhappy with that process, because it is important one of the most important things we do. It is important this matter be taken very, very seriously.”

Gould recalled a similar dispute four years ago over the township manager’s contract when then-Board President Bruce Reed announced with brief notice in executive session that the board would adopt the contract that very evening.

Gould asked what the terms were for that contract, which included a 5 percent raise per year. Gould voted no, “for purely economic reasons,” he said.

“I have sat on many boards in the public and private sectors, and I can honestly say that I have never been part of anything led so sloppily as [with] this effort,” Gould said.

Rogan replied afterward that Churchill did not have to take the blame, and that she residents could “sling darts at me, as they have been doing all day."

Rogan added that contract negotiations are typically discussed privately. The board president agreed it would be helpful if the agenda were clearer in the future, but that regardless, the decision is made in public.

“I apologize to anyone in the community who felt they didn’t have sufficient notice,” Rogan said.

The board will discuss the matter further at the Wednesday, March 6 meeting.