by Geoff Fox & Kate Shunney
Hancock Councilman Leo Murray resigned his seat on the town council following a split vote on a personnel action at the Hancock town meeting last Tuesday, June 8.
Murray resigned after an extensive closed session that lasted about an hour.
Officials voted on allowing the town’s attorney to proceed with a water bill issues before moving to a vote on the personnel action.
“I’ll now ask for the motion in regarding the personnel action discussed in the closed session to act on that tonight,” Smith said.
Lanehart made the motion for the vote and Cubbage seconded it. At no time did town officials say what the action was for.
The vote on the personnel action was split – Murray and Councilman Josh McCusker voting against it, Councilwoman Misty Cubbage and Councilman Roland Lanehart, Jr. in favor – so Mayor Tim Smith cast the deciding vote in favor of the personnel action.
“I will use my tie breaking power and I will vote with Councilman Lanehart and Councilwoman Cubbage to take action immediately for the personnel issue that was discussed in the closed session,” Smith said in casting his vote.
After the vote, Murray rose from his seat at the council table and announced his resignation.
“This is my last night, I resign,” Murray said before picking up his belongings and walking away.
On his way out the door, Murray thanked those who voted for him and “I just had to resign.”
While the discussion about Gilbert’s future was done in a closed session and eventual vote on the personnel action to fire him in the public meeting, Gilbert remained at the table, giving his Town Manager Report and being included in a discussion about the possibility of moving forward with a pool and splash pad in Widmeyer Park.
After the meeting, as members of the media were asking Smith what the personnel action was, Town Manager Joe Gilbert walked up and said he had been fired without cause.
When asked why officials fired Gilbert, Smith said it was the feeling that at this time, the town officials wanted to “move in a different direction” with the town manager. The firing was effective immediately.
Smith said the grants and will still be key and the town would reach out to get help with them.
The town will still keep momentum moving forward, Smith said.
After the meeting, Police Chief Jim Robison stood by as Gilbert was cleaning out the town manager’s truck and turning in town-owned items.
Raise & contract before firing
In an interview with The Hancock News last Friday, Gilbert said he had suspicions that his departure was determined before the election took place in April.
“Anybody running for office most certainly would make plans what they’re going to do after and if they’re elected,” he said.
When the June 8 meeting ended, Smith called Gilbert over to the mayor’s seat to tell him council had voted to terminate his position.
Gilbert asked Smith what was the cause of the firing. According to Gilbert, Smith told him they didn’t need a cause to fire him.
Gilbert said he didn’t think it was very professional to carry out the task in a public venue or ethical to fire an employee in front of the media in a public venue.
While he didn’t want to discuss why two council people and mayor voted to fire him, Gilbert said he didn’t believe it was based on his performance.
In March, the council under then-mayor Ralph Salvagno, voted to give Gilbert a raise, bonus, and extended a two-year contract to him. Gilbert said Salvagno had signed that contract.
“Then two months later, a month after the election, I’m terminated,” he said.
Gilbert said if had a sketchy performance, then it wouldn’t make sense for the town to have given him the new contract with a raise and bonus two months prior.
Since the meeting, Gilbert said has not spoken to any member of the town council or mayor and has no plans to do so.
What troubles Gilbert the most is, as he said, the town was on the verge of a renaissance with industry, businesses, and jobs coming to town along with the outdoor activities and tourism.
“My biggest concern is all of that will go away,” he said. “All of that will stop.”
Gilbert said it won’t matter to him directly, as he’s already received offers from other places and he won’t be in town.
Gilbert encouraged residents of Hancock to take ownership in the town government. He said residents should hold officials accountable for what they are doing. Everything they do is public record such as meetings, every contract that is signed, email, memo, project put out for bid, and every dime that comes in and goes out.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Gilbert said of the public’s right to know about government decisions.
Gilbert came to Hancock from upstate New York and had served all over the world and lived in seven countries and 11 states. He acknowledged he’s not local.
“The one thing Hancock has going for it is potential,” he said. “Immense potential.”
Over the two years he’s been in Hancock, Gilbert said it’s been his pleasure to help and serve the people of Hancock.
“This could be so much more than it is. Don’t let it slip away,” he said.
Former councilman Leo Murray told The Hancock News days after his resignation that there was a reason he left his council seat immediately after the vote to fire Gilbert.
“I wasn’t going to sit there with them knowing what they had done and how they did it,” Murray said. “I just don’t like the direction the town is going and I don’t like the underhanded way they did it.”
Murray said discussions during the closed session included complaints from some that Gilbert didn’t have the town’s budget document done on time, that he didn’t answer emails or return phone calls.
“I’ve never had that experience,” Murray said.
He noted that the town’s charter says the annual budget is to be prepared by the council and the town manager working together.
According to Murray, the wording of Lanehart’s motion to take a personnel action deliberately avoided saying Gilbert’s name or title.
He said council members were advised by the town’s attorney to keep that action, taken out in open session in front of town residents and staff, “discreet” by not being more specific.
The wording of a motion to be voted on in an open meeting must be specific under Maryland’s Open Meetings Act.
After the personnel vote, Murray said he couldn’t stay at the meeting.
Murray said he appreciates the progress Gilbert had made on economic development and revitalization in two years. Much of that work was compiled into a presentation that town officials used in arguing that Washington County should keep Hancock High School open for the future.
“I don’t understand it. We just gave Joe a raise,” Murray said.
Town officials have 14 days to fill Murray’s seat on council and have said they will be starting a search immediately to replace Gilbert.
Hancock Mayor Tim Smith didn’t respond to a request for comment by press time. Councilman Roland Lanehart Jr. said he had no comment at this time on his motion to fire Gilbert or the council’s vote. Lanehart said officials were advised by the town’s attorney not to say anything regarding the firing.