By Chris Lisinski
GROTON — Executive session minutes reveal contract negotiations between Groton’s Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Mark Haddad were at times contentious and laborious, though the town manager and some selectmen said they have since moved past those issues and maintain a healthy working relationship.
The entire five-member board negotiated with Haddad during several executive sessions over a six-week period. Those meetings included patches of infighting among the board, disagreements over the contract’s numbers and, in fact, moments in which some selectmen complimented Haddad despite previous clashes with him, according to minutes from those executive sessions.
During the Feb. 8 executive session, Haddad, who felt he was underpaid in his position, said “negotiations so far had been awful and was nothing he had ever seen happen before,” the minutes stated. However, in an interview Tuesday alongside Selectmen Jack Petropoulos and Josh Degen — who both voted against the contract and symbolically refused to sign it — Haddad said he and the board are on good professional terms.
“The two people that voted against the contract are here with me discussing this rationally and very reasonably,” he said.
The three officials also explained Tuesday that a lengthy two-paragraph redaction in the Feb. 22 executive session minutes did not have to do with the town manager’s negotiations. Instead, they said, that section of discussion dealt with talks about the police chief’s contract, and since those are ongoing, the information could not yet be released.
Preparations for the negotiations began in November and the first formal talks began on Jan. 28, according to the minutes. The board initially offered Haddad both a three-year contract and a one-year contract, though the town manager then said he was not interested in a one-year contract.
On Tuesday, Haddad said the members of the board entered negotiations from different standpoints: Petropoulos did not want a new contract for the town manager, Degen wanted a one-year contract, and Selectmen Anna Eliot, Peter Cunningham and Stuart Schulman wanted to give the manager a three-year contract. Degen and Petropoulos agreed with that assessment.
During the negotiation process, the talks hit a variety of snags as board members disagreed on policy or as personalities clashed or as momentum faltered.
On Jan. 28, Haddad claimed the board no longer wanted him in the position because of their initial offer; on Feb. 8, Schulman “asked if they were going anywhere with this conversation,” the minutes stated; on Feb. 18, Haddad complained that the board had spent several hours deliberating behind closed doors and only a matter of minutes negotiating with him face-to-face.
Occasionally, the disputes were settled quickly. On Jan. 28, Eliot claimed that Degen and Petropoulos had corresponded in advance and that they both wanted Haddad out of town, prompting Petropoulos to say “her comment made her look foolish,” according to the minutes. Eliot apologized shortly after for making accusations.
It was unusual for all five board members to participate in the negotiations. In the past only one or two members were delegated to handle such talks.
“It’s a very cumbersome task when you put five selectmen together,” Degen said Tuesday.
But negativity was not universal: on Jan. 28, Degen was described as saying “they have a capable manager regardless of any past history he and Haddad had,” according to the minutes.
Much of the tension between certain members of the board and Haddad came from differing financial goals. Degen and Petropoulos wanted to limit the town’s spending growth to 2.2 percent, partially to set an example in anticipation of contract bargaining with other employees.
The board also wanted Haddad to pay an additional 10 percent of his healthcare costs, another move that was sought as a precedent for future negotiations.
However, Eliot criticized the desire to set a cap on raises since the Finance Committee had no clear policy on the matter.
“She said that she had a problem trying to hold a standard that hasn’t been established adding this position could not act like a sacrificial lamb,” the Jan. 28 minutes stated.
Haddad’s main goal was to get his base salary after three years above $140,000, which he said is the level he feels he deserves based on what other town executives are paid.
That itself was the source of some dispute: the Personnel Board conducted a survey of town manager salaries in other municipalities and found the average to be $124,216. However, Haddad disagreed with some of the towns that were included there because he felt that leaders in certain areas, such as Littleton and Pepperell, do not have duties analogous to his own.
“(The personnel board) base it on the town’s population and the town’s budget,” Haddad said Tuesday. “They did not look at the job description of the chief executive of the town or the chief administrative officer of the town … You have town administrators that did not have budgetary appointing authority that the town manager has, and so I didn’t think those were fair comparisons regardless of budget or salary.”
So, with his goals and his research as a foundation, Haddad made a first offer based on his own salary survey that he described as “dramatically high,” anticipating that the board would come in lower and the two would meet in the middle. His first three-year contract proposal included annual raises of 7.7 percent in the first year, 7.1 percent in the second year and 6.7 percent in the third year.
The board’s first three-year offer was far more modest, though Petropoulos said Tuesday it was a serious, “good faith” offer and not intentionally low as a bargaining tactic.
That offer included raises of 1.5 percent in year one and then raises based on the “Massachusetts average year over year income” in years two and three. The offered also included a 2 percent one-time bonus — that is, a bonus that does not accrue to the base salary — in all three years.
Haddad also demanded several benefits: a car allowance; an increase from four to five weeks’ vacation time; an extra personal day; one week of vacation buyback; and a life insurance policy.
During the Jan. 28 executive session, the board rejected the car allowance, the extra week of vacation and the extra personal day, but by the time the final contract was ratified, they had accepted all three, albeit with a staggered series of car allowances that are lower than Haddad initially requested.
Over the next several weeks, Haddad and the board each made several offers (or rejected the other’s offer) and eventually settled in the middle: a three-year contract with annual raises of 3 percent, 3 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively; annual car allowances of $2,100, $3,250 and $4,500, respectively; and a staggered growth in Haddad’s health-insurance contribution from 20 percent to 25 percent to 30 percent per year. That contract offer also included five weeks of vacation, life insurance, an extra personal day and a severance policy as Haddad had requested.
Eliot, Schulman and Cunningham voted to approve the contract. Degen and Petropoulos both voted against it because they wanted the budget to stick to 2.2 percent growth as recommended by the Finance Committee, they said.
“The frustration you saw in (the minutes) is real, the working relationship you see here is real, and we have challenges every day and we each work for what we think is the right thing to do,” Petropoulos said Tuesday. “But the challenges get resolved one way or another.”
Perhaps one exchange during that interview summed it up best.
“Mark’s allowed to be wrong,” Petropoulos said with a smile.
Haddad replied: “As is the board.”
Follow Chris Lisinski on Twitter @ChrisLisinski.