April 4, 2018 at 5:30 p.m.

Lack of council action led to town manager's resignation

By HSJ Online [email protected]

The loss of Hope's town manager a month ago, over a simmering pay dispute, came about after months of the issue going unresolved and the town manager's repeated attempts to get the Town Council to correct the situation.

And ultimately it came down to a lack of action on an e-mail chain between Town Manager Melina Fox and then-Council President Jonathan Titus.

Titus says that in retrospect, he didn't realize the seriousness of the e-mails he exchanged with Melina Fox about the pay issue, nor did he realize that she meant to resign as town manager if it were not resolved.

At last month's Town Council meeting, Councilman Greg Sims said he was blind-sided by Fox's resignation on Feb. 5th and asked if anyone on the council had received or reacted to an e-mail from early November, that Fox had mentioned in her resignation letter -- an e-mail that started the ball rolling toward her resignation.

None of the council members said they had received the e-mail.

"That is what I was trying to get out of, whoever, at that meeting, was 'Why didn't we react?'" Sims said. "Why did it come down to a resignation? That is what I didn't understand."

The crux of the disagreement, came when Fox was hired by the Town Council as full-time town manager. She was originally offered an annual salary of $50,000. But she and the council hiring committee agreed to instead put $5,000 of that first year's salary toward rebuilding the town's website and stepping up its social media presence. After that was done, she requested her base pay to be reinstated at the full level.

Fox said at the time of her resignation that she had been trying to get that base pay returned to the promised level of $50,000, in addition to the 2 percent raise other town employees received. And while the council did act to approve the 2 percent increase for her, it never took action to bring the pay back up to the promised level.

On Nov. 4th, Fox sent an e-mail to Titus discussing upcoming performance reviews for Town Marshal Matt Tallent and David Clouse the utilities manager. But she also included a paragraph to remind Titus that the council needed to address her pay issue and a list of her accomplishments she would like considered in a review of her work.

Titus responded with a short e-mail saying everything looked in order and Fox responded with thanks. A second e-mail was sent by Fox to Titus on Jan. 6th to remind him of the issue.

In retrospect, Titus says that the e-mail exchanges happened but he did not realize the significance of the messages sent by Fox or what the eventual repercussions could be.

"Nothing was ever specifically spelled out to me or said to me that 'I want a review and it is about this (the pay issue,)'" Titus said. "Honestly I was caught off guard. I did not realize that she was going to quit, is the best way to put it."

Titus said that he and Fox met to discuss upcoming town projects shortly before her resignation and she never mentioned to him that she was considering quitting if the pay issue were not resolved.

"She gave me a list at that point of the things we she felt needed to work on and she said nothing like 'That is, if I am still here,' or 'These are things we can work on together.' -- anything like that," Titus said.

In fact, he said that by giving her the two percent raise the other employees were receiving that he thought the council was addressing her concerns.

"She never specifically called me and said 'We obviously have a misunderstanding here and here is what I want. Please have an executive session and discuss whether or not I get this kind of raise,'" Titus said. "Maybe she thought that I could read between the lines or something but I didn't. There was never an intent on my part to say 'Guys, we are not going to give her the raise she wants.'"

"If you remember in the January meeting, I am the one who made, as we were going through appointments, who made the motion to retain her as town manager."

Titus said there was no intention on his part, or on anyone on the council's part, to lead Fox to resign by withholding the pay she believes she was owed.

"I think it was just an unfortunate misunderstanding," Titus said.

Titus said he keeps a binder with all of the important issues before the council. He normally prints out important e-mails and documents to keep a physical copy. But because he did not realize the importance of the pay discussion Fox wanted to have, he hadn't even printed out the e-mails for reference and as a reminder.

"It was one of those where I didn't even save the email, I didn't catalog it, I didn't put it in the folder," Titus said. "I honestly did not remember even getting it until a couple people said something about it. It just didn't stick out like some do... If I think it is important, I print it, so that I have that copy as well as what I have electronically."

This week Fox provided a further e-mail Clerk-Treasurer Diane Burton sent in mid-January reminding the council that it needed to address Fox's issues.

The council did not act on her pay issue at its January meeting, but on Jan. 20th, the day after the January council meeting, Titus sent an e-mail to Burton and Cindy Boll, the town attorney, pointing out that Fox believed she was owed pay and asking what the council needed to do to address that issue.

But after the council failed to act, Fox decided to resign, turning in her two-week notice, she said. Other council members said they had no idea of the unfolding pay dispute or that the issue was not being put on the agenda.

In her resignation letter, Fox cited the unheeded e-mails to Titus and the lack of council action on her concerns as her reason for leaving:

"Since no action was taken at the last Town Council meeting about the base portion of my request, it is my reason for leaving. My performance and value should have been discussed in an Executive Session with a public recommendation."

Fox said in an e-mail interview Friday that she only communicated her concerns to Titus because he was the council president. She thought her concerns would be addressed as part of the ongoing improvements to the employee performance review process and during an executive session.

Until the January Town Council meeting, she thought her request to have the pay issue addressed was moving forward through an executive session and action would be taken.

"When my request to have the $5,000 from the website cost being added back to my agreed base salary was not brought up at the Council meeting, I knew that I was not valued as an employee," Fox said. "Thus, I resigned. My Dad always instilled in me that you are only as good as the people who work for you. Treat them with respect and kindness."

Sims said he was in St. Louis on business on the Friday Fox resigned and he first found out from the article on HSJ Online. He said he did not know she had a resignation pending.

"'What just happened?' I was completely blindsided by the entire thing," Sims said.

Sims said he did not receive the Nov. 4th e-mail, it wasn't discussed with council members and he didn't know if it only went to the council president, Titus.

"I had no idea that was coming. Myself and Jonathan and Jerry (Bragg) were the three current board members that were involved in the hiring process of that individual. Indeed, it was a $50,000 a year job. That was what we agreed upon."

He said the agreement included setting aside $5,000 for the website and the social media building.

"I look back at it kind of like maybe shame on me, because I knew that what we agreed upon was the $5,000 a year less," Sims said. "And 18-19 months into her employment with the town, should I have remembered? I am a part-time council member. I do this to try to help the town and make good decisions for the town and the taxpayers but I couldn't remember that. But if I had an e-mail sent to me, kind of revisiting that, I would have responded."

Sims said he is convinced that it will take a lot more than $5,000 to find a new town manager. And he is not satisfied that Titus and new Town Council President Clyde Compton accepted Fox's resignation without involving the entire council in the discussion. But he also said he was disappointed that Fox asked in the earlier e-mails to keep the pay dispute out of the public eye.

"We are a five-member board and to do it over again, they shouldn't have accepted that (resignation) letter because it was just presented to them two, and not the entire board," Sims said. "And shame on Mel for putting in there not to say anything. How can it be addressed or fixed if you don't want anybody to say anything?"

Sims said that he doesn't believe the pay dispute was being intentionally used as a wedge to get Fox to resign.

"It is sad that it has come to this," Sims said. "We are back to square one. I personally didn't agree with 100 percent of everything Mel had done... But you are not going to please every individual but she had a lot of good things going and turned things around for the community."

Compton said he was also disappointed that Fox wanted to keep the issue out of the public eye but he respected her wishes by not spreading the pending resignation to the rest of the council, but he also tried many times to contact her. After the resignation became effective, and became public, a month ago, he tried to contact her to talk her out of the decision by assuring her that a majority of the council agreed to address her concerns.

But Compton also said that as vice-president of the council at the time of the pay issue unfolding, he was unaware Fox was disgruntled by the lingering pay problem. He said to the best of his knowledge, the only council member who knew about her concerns was Titus.

Compton said the town has taken a huge loss with Fox's departure. He said the town desperately needs someone with her expertise to take the town forward into the 21st century, instead of letting things lapse back to where they were before.

Discussion at Feb. 16th Council meeting:

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