More than 100 people came to the Smithfield Town Hall on Monday looking for answers.
The Town Council had voted 4-3 to fire Town Manager Paul Sabiston the week before, and Smithfield will pay him about $50,000 for doing so “without cause.” The council called Monday’s meeting to appoint an interim manager, but first the crowd wanted to know why Sabiston lost his job, and many wanted the council to hire him back.
The council had not planned to allow public comment but changed its mind because of the strong turnout.
In the interest of time, Mayor John Lampe said he would divide the speakers into those who supported Sabiston and those who supported the council’s vote to fire him. That way, he said, the two groups could take turns speaking and avoid repeating the same points.
When Lampe asked to see who came to support Sabiston, more than 20 people raised their hands. When he asked to see who supported Sabiston’s firing, not a single hand went up.
Before the public got a chance to speak, Town Attorney Bob Spence made clear that the council would not say why it let Sabiston go.
First of all, Spence said, state law prevents the town from divulging details of personnel decisions to the public.
Second, he said, Smithfield is paying for the right to fire him “without cause” based on the contract Sabiston, an attorney, drew up with the town. Under that agreement, he said, the council cannot list all of the reasons it voted to fire him.
“It’s basically to allow the parties to part and not throw stones at each other,” Spence said. “It may seem frustrating to you, that as public citizens you (think you) have a right to know everything. Unfortunately, that’s not the rules.”
‘Part of the fabric of this community’
The first public speech came from local attorney Mike Reece, who defended Sabiston as both a member of the community and as town manager.
Reece said Sabiston and his family had engrained themselves in the Smithfield community since the town hired him in April 2012. Sabiston lives in town and is active in youth sports and activities, Reece said. Also, his wife teaches school, and his children attend Smithfield schools and play sports.
“In just three years, they’ve truly become part of the fabric of this community,” Reece said.
Professionally, Reece said, Sabiston worked with the council to resolve the pay-raise scandal; reorganize the town’s departments; refinance debt at lower interest rates; cut credit-card-processing fees; hold down employee health insurance costs; and develop a plan to deal with Smithfield’s aging sewer, water and electrical infrastructure. In the same time, Reece said, the town’s savings increased from about 1 percent of annual spending to 40 percent.
“His reward for that is he’s been unceremoniously dismissed without warning, without cause, without explanation,” Reece said.
By firing Sabiston while acknowledging he did everything the council asked of him, Reece said, Smithfield is earning a reputation as a bad place to work as a town manager. That will make it tough to attract another competent professional to take the risk of uprooting his family and moving to Smithfield, he said.
Reece noted that Councilman Perry Harris, who led the charge to fire Sabiston, said he did so in order to move the town in another direction. Smithfield seemed to be moving in the right direction with Sabiston, Reece said, and the people have a right to know what new direction the council plans to lead them in.
Reece’s comments drew a spirited round of applause from the audience.
Mayor John Lampe, who did not have a vote in the motion to remove Sabiston, said he would respond to Reece on behalf of the council.
Lampe agreed that Smithfield has made a lot of progress in the past three years, but he said the Town Council deserves most of the credit for those accomplishments. The councilmen put in long hours at meetings for little compensation, he said, and they do it because they love Smithfield.
The manager “does what the council tells him to do. He doesn’t run the town; the council runs the town,” Lampe said.
The average tenure for a town manager is two to seven years, Lampe said, and he likened the position to a head-coaching job in sports. When a team is consistently running in the middle of the pack, he said, it needs to switch the coach out and keep the same players.
“Whether he’s doing a great job or bad job or just a mediocre job, it’s always the head administrator who gets it,” he said.
Using another metaphor, Lampe said towns treat managers like high school girl friends. You date some good ones and some bad ones, he said, but you don’t get married.
Reece also requested the council hold a vote in September to rehire Sabiston. Terminating Sabiston is a done deal, Lampe said, and he would not support putting that item on the agenda.
As for Smithfield’s new direction, Lampe said, the council really wants to continue down the same path but with a new manager.
One of the best
Tim Johnson, who retired as director of parks and recreation in 2014, said he served under seven town managers and several interim managers in his 30 years with Smithfield. Without a doubt, he said, Sabiston and Pete Connett were the two best managers the town has had since 1984.
“Mr. Sabiston did not do this by himself, as has been mentioned by the mayor,” he said. “He surrounded himself, I think because I’ve worked with him, with a great team of department heads and staff.”
Jimmy Baggett brought a daily Bible-study book with him to the meeting. That day’s devotional, taken from 1 Samuel 12:3-5, seemed remarkably relevant to the situation, Baggett said, and he shared the reading with the crowd.
The scripture recounted Samuel’s farewell speech, which he delivered upon turning Israel over to its first king, Saul. In resigning his judgeship, Samuel first made the Israelites testify whether he had cheated or oppressed them in any way during his years as leader.
“‘You have not cheated or oppressed us,’ they replied. ‘You have not taken anything from anyone’s hand,’” Baggett read from the Bible. “Samuel said to them, ‘The Lord is witness against you, and also his anointed is witness this day, that you have not found anything in my hand.’”
Call for unity
Dennis Williams said he did not come prepared to speak, and he did not oppose Sabiston as a town manager. However, he said, the public needs to accept the council’s decision and move forward.
There’s a lot of work to be done in Smithfield, particularly on the east side, Williams said, and it won’t do the town any good for its residents to drive a wedge into its leadership.
“Now is not the time to divide the council, but to encourage them to work more together,” he said.