Embattled town manager will not be fired

After being briefed on the results of an independent investigation and just days before an election, the Dewey Beach commissioners have released a statement regarding the complaints against Town Manager Marc Appelbaum.

In a letter dated June 14, 2017, and addressed to the Dewey Beach mayor and commissioners, twelve town employees, including Dewey Beach Police Chief Sam Mackert and Sgt. Cliff Dempsey, Dewey Beach Patrol Captain Todd Fritchman and Dewey Beach Building Inspector William Mears, demanded Appelbaum’s “immediate and permanent removal.”

 The letter accused him of sexual harassment, racism, abusive conduct and improper interference with the town’s police department, beach patrol and building inspector. You can read that letter in its entirety at sussexlivingde.com.

Since the initial complaints were made, six additional complaints regarding Applebaum have been submitted.

The Dewey Beach commissioners drew a certain amount of ire when they, upon receipt of the complaints, did not suspend Appelbaum. Instead, they arranged for an assistant town manager to take over his responsibilities with the complaining parties and otherwise allowed him to maintain his position.

“There were 12 complaints,” said Hanson. “Eleven of which are from white males complaining about sexual harassment and racial discrimination. There are no real victims. It’s hearsay.”

Out of the 18 total complainants, Hanson said only one is a current employee of the town.

“That’s the reason we didn’t remove Marc,” she said.

Wilmington attorney Max Walton was hired to conduct an investigation into the allegations. This week, he reported back to the commissioners with his findings.

The statement

The Sept. 14 statement from the commissioners:

“In response to a June 14 letter signed by 12 Town employees making various allegations against the Town Manager, the Dewey Beach Town Council engaged an independent investigator to conduct an independent investigation and report back to Town Council an independent set of findings and conclusions. The investigator interviewed over 20 individuals, including current and former Town employees, as well as non-employees. The investigator reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, and spent hundreds of hours on the investigation. At this point in the investigation, findings and recommendations have become available.

Last night, in an executive session, the investigator briefed Town Council on the results of his investigation. A final written report of his investigation is to follow shortly.

In addition to a detailed investigation of the allegations against Mr. Appelbaum, Mr. Walton’s investigation revealed troubling facts about the genesis and timing of those allegations and a Town businessman who is apparently facilitating the attempt to oust Marc Appelbaum. But first we tum to the claims against Mr. Appelbaum.

Significantly, the investigator does not recommend suspension or termination; however, the investigator concluded that the town manager has, on various occasions, failed to meet expectations of decorum and behavior and· the investigator recommends a written reprimand and certain other measures. The Council will consider the appropriate course in the coming weeks. Any actions taken will only occur after appropriate public notice and appropriate public discussion as required by state law.

In the course of the investigation, though, certain remarkable facts have come to light.

First and foremost, the investigator learned that local businessman Alex Pires drafted the original June 14 letter signed by the 12 employees that began this saga. The reasons for Mr. Pires’ involvement are not known, but certainly his disagreements with the Town (and presumably the Town Manager) are. Mr. Pires has unsuccessfully sued the Town. His establishments have been subject to enforcement actions by the Town. Mr. Pires’ involvement may explain why his frequent co-counsel in lawsuits, Rick Cross, has represented the complaining employees. It may also explain why an employee of one of Mr. Pires’ companies acted as notary for affidavits signed by the complaining employees.

That Town employees would tum to Mr. Pires to draft such a letter is disturbing in and of itself. However, the investigator has also concluded that the letter and its allegations were made public by the employees (presumably with the assistance and possible urging of Mr. Pires, who, after all, drafted the letter) in an effort to discredit the Town Manager and to retaliate against him for actions taken with respect to them. That is the investigator’s independent conclusion - reached after his numerous interviews - and we are troubled by it.

It is regrettable that the independent findings and recommendations were not available for Council’s consideration until just days before the Town’s annual election. We had hoped to have concluded our review and taken final action long before now, but the initial refusal of the complaining employees to cooperate delayed our investigator by several weeks.

Having received an oral summary of the investigator’s conclusions and recommendations, and knowing this to be a matter of great public interest, we wanted to let the public know immediately of the results.

You can expect Town Council in the days and weeks ahead to address fully all of the issues raised by the report.

In the meantime, we call upon Mr. Pires, Mr. Cross and the complaining Town employees to disclose more about the relationship between Mr. Pires and the claims made against the Town Manager. In particular, we would like to know whether Mr. Pires is providing any sort of financial assistance to the employees or Mr. Cross in connection with the investigation, the Court of Chancery lawsuit, the Public Integrity Commission complaint and other efforts to discredit the Town Manager and the Town.”

Neither Pires nor Cross responded to requests for comments.

The gun

Commissioner Diane Hanson thinks the complaints against Appelbaum were made in retaliation.

On April 15, 2017, just west of Millsboro, an unmarked, parked Chevrolet Tahoe belonging to DBP Sgt. Dempsey was broken into. His duty belt, containing a Glock 21 .45 caliber pistol, two fully loaded magazines, a taser, pepper spray and handcuffs, was stolen. Several people have been charged in relation to the theft, but according to Delaware State Police Master Corporal Gary Fournier, the gun, ammunition and magazines have not yet been recovered.

Dempsey was presumably reprimanded by DBP Chief Mackert, but town officials decided to take things a step further and, in early June, Appelbaum notified the police department that an outside consultant would be reviewing the department’s policies. A few days later, the complaints against Appelbaum were submitted to the town.

“I think it was retaliation,” Hanson said. “The police have not been willing to meet with the outside consultant over the past two months.”

Dempsey said he had no comment; Mackert did not respond to requests for comments.

The election

Saturday, Dewey Beach residents will vote on the commissioner seats of both Hanson and Mayor Dale Cooke. Commissioner Mike Dunmeyer's seat is up for grabs; he decided not to run for re-election.

Hanson and Cooke have been challenged by candidates TJ Redefer, Paul Bauer and Jill Compello, who recently began campaigning as a team and calling for a "clean sweep." Redefer is the only full-time resident of the three, meaning he would be the only one who would qualify to be mayor.

Compello, a “fifty-something” resident of Newark and Dewey Beach, was once part of the faculty at both the University of Delaware and Temple University, and worked for ten years as a Red Clay School District administrator. She’s employed as the administrator of a research grant at the University of Delaware.

“I think council people should have term limits,” she said. “Diane [Hanson] and Dale [Cooke] have been in there awhile, and I think sometimes you lose sight of the fact that you work for the people - you’re not there for your own benefit.”

Compello disagrees with Hanson; she does not believe the complaints against Appelbaum are retaliation for a review of the police department’s policies.

“I trust the chief,” she said. “I do think it’s a good idea to periodically review things, though, especially if other councilmembers think there’s a reason to investigate, but Appelbaum has to be dealt with first.”

Registered Dewey Beach voters can cast their ballots on Saturday, Sept. 16, at either the Dewey Beach Town Hall or Lifesaving Station between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.