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The pay of Concord’s highest-paid city employee not up for public debate

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Monitor staff
Thursday, June 14, 2018

Concord’s top city employee was paid close to $200,000 last year and is due for a raise.

On Thursday night, the Concord City Council will be publicly debating and voting on millions of dollars of cost items in the upcoming city budget.

Except for one item – City Manager Tom Aspell’s contract.

The council has scheduled a nonpublic session in between the Finance Committee’s workshop session and the city council’s public hearing and adoption of the budget, citing a discussion of “the City Manager’s Evaluation.” At a Monday night council meeting, Mayor Jim Bouley said he would also like to make an “up or down” vote on Aspell’s contract.

The session is supposed to “very, very quick,” Bouley said then. But it’s unclear whether Aspell’s contract will be available to the public prior to adoption.

Aspell’s base pay has increased from $113,000 to $169,949 from 2006 to 2016 – a 45 percent increase. In 2017, his gross earnings were $192,026, making him the highest-paid city employee and one of the highest-paid public employees in the state.

His past contracts, which are available at city hall, also provide fringe benefits like a $100-a-month telephone allowance, a $400-a-month car allowance, and $75 a month to maintain his computer. On top of the regular contributions to his pension with the New Hampshire Retirement System, the city paid another $16,145 into a special city manager retirement account. He gets 30 sick days a year and a paid three-month sabbatical every three years. Those benefits, like his salary, have increased over the years.

In 2006, Aspell received $300 a month for his car and $50 a month for his computer and no telephone allowance. The city paid $2,000 into his special retirement account, and he was given 18 sick days. The provision for paid sabbatical time was added in 2017.

All of these changes have occurred without any public discussion.

For one, Aspell’s evaluation and contract should be taken up separately, said Gregory Sullivan, general counsel to the Union Leader and member of the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s Committee on the Judiciary and the Media.

According to Aspell’s current contract, the evaluation is supposed to be taken up every April.

Clearly, once the contract – which takes effect on July 1 each year – has been signed, it should be available for public disclosure, Sullivan said.

Separately, the city has maintained that Aspell’s evaluation should be shielded from public view, but Bill Chapman, an attorney for Orr & Reno who has previously represented the Monitor, said that arguments could be made that the public has a right to know.

“As a matter of good public policy, should the council’s assessment of the top city employee be public?” he asked.

City officials aren’t shedding any light on the status of Aspell’s contract or his evaluation.

The Monitor first reached out to Aspell via phone Tuesday. He responded and left a voicemail but did not respond to further phone calls or emails.

City Solicitor James Kennedy did not respond to a phone call or email requesting comment. Bouley did not respond to phone calls or a text requesting comment.

Ward 2 Councilor Allan Herschlag didn’t say whether the contract has been signed or not, but he did say, “We are still in the process of negotiating the manager’s contract, and once it’s finalized, it’ll become public.”

State law is explicit on how school contracts should be handled – but not other municipal employees.

A contract negotiated by a school board shall be “made public prior to its consideration for approval by a school district, together with minutes of all meetings held in nonpublic session, any proposals or records related to the contract, and any proposal or records involving a school district that did not become a party to the contract, shall be made public,” according to RSA 91-A:2.

Earlier this year, the Legislature considered a bill that would have made the evaluations of top municipal employees public, but with the opposition of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, it was defeated.

Herschlag agreed with the city’s view to keep the contract secret until it’s a done deal, but he said the council could do a better job of enlightening residents as to how their negotiations work.

“I think it’s important to have a vigorous discussion after the contract is agreed upon,” he said, “to explain to the public what we’ve done. ... After we’ve come to an agreement, we should explain to the public what it is we’ve agreed to.”

And if residents don’t have faith that the council will do a good job negotiating, then “they should vote us out,” Herschlag said.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)