The City Council on Monday again delayed any conclusion to former City Manager Chuck Hafter’s disputed retirement benefits, but hopes to deliver a decision by September 26, announced Council chair Sandra Dooley after an hour of closed-door deliberations. The announcement was followed by a flurry of comments from residents concerned about the Council’s continued use of executive session and its perceived stonewalling of public comment.
After two decades as City Manager, Hafter retired from South Burlington in May of 2010. Allegations subsequently arose that Hafter’s retirement benefits, including a city-funded retirement plan through the International City/County Managers Association, a city pension, and a long-term care policy, were never approved by former City Councils. Hafter disputes the allegations. Investigations yielded no record of Hafter’s entitlement to all of the benefits, although some former Councilors recall an approval.
Residents and the Council clashed over the extent to which the Council would continue to hear public comment on the issue. “Will you accept additional information and testimony from the public tonight?” asked John Dinklage, a former Councilor and recently retired member of the city’s Development Review Board, who submitted written comment. (See Dinklage ‘Viewpoint’ page 3.)
Joe McNeil, attorney for the city, responded that he’d advised the Council to listen to the public, though cautioned that unless comments were “absolutely critical to decision-making, [they] would be a diversion from the ability to get this resolved.”
“It’s an open meeting,” responded a visibly frustrated member of the audience.
“It’s not a totally open meeting,” Dooley replied. The Council sought legal advice on their rights related to conducting a council meeting, she said.
Other residents pressed the Council on the continued use of executive session. “Why are you behind closed doors on this?” asked Chris Smith, a former City Councilor who served while Hafter was employed by South Burlington. (See Smith ‘Viewpoint’ page 3.)
The City Council held a public hearing on September 6, and entered executive session on September 6, 12 and 19 to discuss Hafter’s benefits. McNeil has been present at those sessions, according to the Council. Minutes are not kept, and no decision may be made during executive session.
“There was a clear, express, and specific threat of litigation,” said Councilor Jim Knapp. Hafter’s wife, Betty Moore-Hafter, has said that they will pursue legal recourse if the Council decides to block Hafter’s retirement benefits. “We need to be sure we understand all the legal ramifications of any decision we make,” Knapp said. He also stated that any public statements made by the Council could be used as evidence in future legal battles.
Resident Mark Williams expressed concern that the Council’s actions could expose South Burlington to another lawsuit. “What I have noticed is that no matter how many accusations seem to be proved false against Mr. Hafter, the accusations keep coming. The City Council is opening themselves up to a lawsuit that could be very big, in terms of slander,” he said.
Early in the meeting, Elaine (Laney) Hafter, Chuck Hafter’s daughter, refuted a statement made by the Council on September 12 that the City has withheld Hafter’s city pension since March of 2011. Presenting a letter to McNeil from Hafter’s attorney at the time, Steven Bredice of Powell, Orr and Bredice, she stated that Chuck Hafter has not received his city pension since first requesting it in 2010.
Recent correspondence between Hafter and the City is available at http://www.sburl.com. The Council is also investigating whether Hafter is contractually bound to repay the city over $50,000 in accrued equity payments from his home, purchased partially with a city-funded loan when Hafter was hired in 1989.
The Council did not determine a time or location for the September 26 meeting.
SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent