August 22, 2019
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‘Toxic work environment’ drives Maine town manager to resign after 26 years on the job

Lauren Abbate | BDN
Lauren Abbate | BDN
Thomaston officials are having to figure out next steps after their town manager abruptly resigned citing a "toxic work environment."

THOMASTON, Maine — After serving the town of Thomaston for 26 years, Town Manager Valmore Blastow unexpectedly gave his two-week notice last week, citing a “toxic work environment” that he said has taken root in town government.

Blastow’s last day will be June 6 — six days before Thomaston’s annual town meeting ― leaving town officials trying to figure out how to move forward without the top municipal administrator.

“You’re not going to fill Val’s shoes. You might follow in his footsteps, but you’re never going to fill his shoes,” Peter Lammert, chair of the Thomaston Select Board, said at a meeting on Blastow’s resignation Tuesday.

In his May 24 resignation letter, Blastow said that he has endured a “tumultuous year in a hostile and toxic work environment […] the defamation and torturous conditions continue to this day.”

Blastow took specific aim at the newest member of the select board, Beverly St. Clair, who was elected in June. St. Clair, according to the resignation letter, was trying to “get rid” of Blastow as town manager.

In a written statement, St. Clair said Wednesday that she has never said she was trying to get rid of Blastow. St. Clair said she was just as surprised as everyone else that Blastow tendered his resignation.

“As a selectperson I am disappointed that an employee of the town would write such a hostile, provocative and unprecedented resignation letter,” she wrote.

Most of Blastow’s concerns with St. Clair stem from her business, Thomaston Recycling, which she owns with Scott Johnson. Blastow said since 2017, the code enforcement office has cited the business for violations, including removing a 6-foot “pile of junk from the roadway.”

“Divisive energy breed divisive results,” Blastow wrote. “The unfortunate common denominator beyond all my faults, in my opinion, is that the owners of Thomaston Recycling have waged an aggressive assault on my character because of the violations at their business.”

In addition to claiming that St. Clair wanted to remove him from office, Blastow also said that her business partner filed a harassment complaint against the town’s code enforcement officer to the Thomaston police chief, which was then forwarded to the Knox County sheriff for investigation.

Blastow included copies of the police report — and photos of the business and its alleged violations — in his resignation letter. The sheriff’s office found that the incident, which included the code enforcement officer driving by the business and taking photos, did not constitute harassment.

However, in her statement, St. Clair claims that Thomaston Recycling has never been served a violation citation from the code enforcement officer.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Blastow declined to specify in what other ways he has found town government operations to be “toxic,” only that a review of the minutes and audio recordings of town meetings would show a tone change.

St. Clair said she does not believe that town business has changed over the years, only that the public is more aware because of “open meetings, unlike the clandestine meetings of the past,” she wrote.

“If the town manager feels [threatened] by my dedication to lawful duty, that is on him,” she said.

The change in Thomaston government operations has not been lost on residents who attended an emergency meeting Tuesday at 2 p.m. to discuss Blastow’s resignation and next steps in terms of replacing him.

“During the last year, I have noticed a difference in the climate at the town office. It seems to me that we have lost a lot of the civility that I have always loved Thomaston for,” Diane Giese said. “It seems to me that it’s very toxic. I think we should try to be kind and decent about our communications and how we treat people.”

Several individuals expressed dismay at the town losing a longtime employee over the downturn in civility that has taken shape during the past year. Jan Dearborn said it’s a shame to lose Blastow’s institutional knowledge about the town over what she said “sounded like a schoolyard brawl.”

“I place great importance on historical perspective. You can’t go out and get that,” she said.

Lammert said Wednesday that the selectboard hasn’t made any firm decisions on how to proceed with hiring a new town manager. However, he said the board will likely vote to name an interim town manager initially.

In response to the “toxic” conditions cited by Blastow and recognized by some residents, Lammert said there have been a number of instances during the past year that generated frustration because of misinformation and poor internal communication.

Most notably, Lammert said, was the confusion over whether town officials were considering replacing their longtime attorney, which never happened. Additionally, frustrations formed around figuring out how the town could build back, or replace, its struggling police department.

“It seemed every week there was a new event and I think the compounding of that was the thing that bothered Val the most,” he said.

 



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