Northfield town administrator alleges personal animosity from police chief

  • MORALES

Recorder Staff
Published: 3/30/2018 7:51:33 PM

NORTHFIELD — Town Administrator Willie Morales says that the complaints brought against him by the Selectboard this week were the result of Police Chief Robert Leighton’s personal animosity against him.

“His role is subordinate to my office, and I believe he has a problem with that, especially when it pertains to recruitment,” Morales said Thursday. “Every time the police chief has had any interactions with my office, there has been a little bit of difficulty. He doesn’t believe that I should be involved in it at all … despite the fact that it says in the personnel policies that I am to do just that.”

Morales said that since he took office in July, there have been three instances in which Leighton attempted to circumvent his authority regarding the police department’s decisions on recruitment.

Morales cited Leighton’s exclusion of him from a committee that the chief had formed to review candidates for the position of police sergeant. That issue, Morales says, is within the purview of the town administrator, according to the town’s personnel policy. Morales said that ultimately he had to appeal to the Selectboard to enforce that policy.

This disagreement was discussed briefly Wednesday during Morales’s disciplinary hearing during which the Selectboard listed 10 complaints about their administrator. One was about an email Morales wrote to Leighton in a supposedly unprofessional tone.

“In my perspective, he was OK working with me so long as it dealt with the superficial interactions between our departments,” Morales said. “Once it got involved – and recruitment is an involved process – then there was an issue.”

Much discussed during Wednesday’s meeting was Leighton’s continuing communication with former Town Administrator Brian Noble, who left his job in Northfield in November of 2016. Morales said that during his tenure as town administrator, Leighton has more than once consulted Noble on personnel-related decisions, including disciplinary matters, and that Leighton on these occasions shared personally sensitive information regarding town employees with Noble.

In an email to The Recorder, Leighton wrote that he had received permission from the chairwoman of the Selectboard, Tracy Rogers ,before contacting Noble.

“I sought Mr. Noble’s advice because he was dealing with the issues prior to his departure,” Leighton wrote. “As Mr. Noble is still a sitting town administrator with considerably more management experience than Mr. Morales, I went where I felt I would receive quality advice and guidance. I do not consider asking for help to be a sign of weakness.”

The Selectboard complained on Wednesday that Morales had improperly retrieved emails regarding Leighton and Noble from the town server. Morales and his lawyer pointed out that the town’s personnel policy states that the town administrator does have access to all emails on the town server, and that employees should therefore not expect any privacy in their emails.

“I escalated to an email retrieval because I felt that there was an interference in the relationship between the chief and me by my predecessor,” Morales said.

Despite the animosity that he alleges, Morales said that he hopes to be able to continue to serve Northfield.

“Every fiber of my being wants to be here and to work,” he said. “I just want to be able to do my job without political interruption.”

Selectboard complaints

The Selectboard has other ideas, however.

Following the public disciplinary hearing Wednesday, the Selectboard instructed the town’s lawyer to begin discussions with Town Administrator Willie Morales’s lawyer about a “separation.”

After the hearing in which complaints of poor communication and inappropriate actions showed a lack of confidence in the administrator, the selectmen placed a written warning in Morales’s personnel file.

The disciplinary hearing was held in open session, although Morales could have asked for it to have been conducted privately.

Ten complaints against Morales were brought to the hearing. These were:

- Failure to adequately advise the Selectboard of issues regarding an inspection of the Mitchell gravel pit;

- a failure to adequately inform the Selectboard regarding proposed changes to the responsibilities of a certain town employee;

- an inappropriate tone in an email Morales wrote to Police Chief Robert Leighton;

- an inappropriate response to an email regarding the hiring of a consultant for the Pioneer Valley Regional School booster group called HEART;

- regular failures to provide information and documents relevant to upcoming meetings to the Selectboard in a timely manner;

- leaving a copy of Chief Leighton’s employment agreement with the salary highlighted on a table in a local market;

- failure to apprise the Selectboard in a timely manner of requests made by a town employee regarding retirement benefits;

- failure to attend a meeting concerning the screening of applicants for the position of police sergeant, along with a failure to notify other members of the screening committee of his absence, which Morales explained by saying that he had not been feeling well and so was not able to attend;

- raising his voice and using profanity in a phone call with Selectwoman Tracy Rogers and claiming that certain town officials were attempting to dismiss him from his office, for which he apologized to Rogers during the meeting;

- and improperly accessing hundreds of emails on the town server, which Morales maintained was within purview of his job.

Only the last four of those complaints were new. The others had been discussed in previous sessions. At Morales’ request, the only one of the old complaints to be discussed was the allegation that Morales had copied and leaked Leighton’s employment contract, which he denied, saying that he found such actions to be morally reprehensible.

“There’s no way I would have done that,” Morales said.

More than once the discussion returned to the evidently ongoing issues of mistrust and miscommunication between Morales and other town employees, particularly Leighton and Finance Committee Chairwoman Lois Stearns. Morales had apparently advised Leighton in October that any communications between the two of them were to happen through the Selectboard.

Contact Max Marcus at 413-772-0261, ext. 261, or at mmarcus@recorder.com.




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