CUMBERLAND — Cumberland town manager Jeff Sheridan says he has been “forced out” of his position. He resigned last Friday after eight years on the job.
While his tenure has seen both success and controversy, the exact reason for Sheridan’s departure remains unclear.
Sheridan’s resignation was effective immediately, and on Wednesday the Cumberland Town Council created a new position. Steven Yagelski, who has 15 years of experience with various utilities, was hired as the town’s new utility director.
Council President Mark Reynold said the new hire is not related to Sheridan’s departure; rather, the council envisions that Cumberland, which straddles the Hancock/Marion County line, could see a cost savings by restructuring its personnel. Reynold met with Sheridan Friday and told him if he did not resign Reynold would bring his termination up for a vote before the entire council. Reynold also told Sheridan that if he resigned, he may be able to keep his health insurance and pay through the end of the year and he would also receive a letter of recommendation.
“I wish I knew (why),” Sheridan said. “I was not given a reason.”
While Sheridan usually sits in front of the council chambers and makes presentations or answers questions, he sat with the audience Wednesday and spoke during the public comment time of the meeting.
“I believe the record shows that the last eight years have been some of the most productive and positive ever for the town of Cumberland,” Sheridan said, listing grants and projects to improve streets and trails. “But obviously, this was not enough to keep me from being forced out as town manager.”
Sheridan walked out of the meeting shortly after reading the statement, and said he was shocked and disappointed he had been asked to step down.
Sheridan acknowledged his residency has been an issue among constituents over the years. The married father of four lives in the northern Indiana town of Culver, more than 100 miles away. He traveled home on weekends but stayed with nearby family members during the work week.
In January, Sheridan’s take-home vehicle was removed from his contract. Sheridan said if residency were still an issue he would have preferred the council had asked him to move to Cumberland as a condition of employment.
A year ago, Sheridan’s travel expenses came into question in an audit by the State Board of Accounts. Sheridan had traveled to New Orleans and California for conferences in 2010; the audit showed he had extended his stays, and some expenses were undocumented.
At the time, town council members, including Reynold, said his expenses were accounted for, but they also updated the town’s travel policy and prohibited out-of-state travel.
The most recent hot-button issue before the council is the proposed 60 percent water rate increase for Gem Utility customers. Sheridan assisted in the purchase of Gem Utilities and has stood by the acquisition, saying it was a good investment for the growth of the town.
But the town council has wanted to hire a utility director to oversee the town’s four utilities and look for ways to become more efficient.
Sheridan said he’s unsure if the hiring of Yagelski had anything to do with his departure. As town manager, Sheridan oversaw utilities in addition to other infrastructure projects.
“I recommended they needed to hire somebody, but not as a reason to fire somebody else,” Sheridan said.
Yagelski’s salary will be $89,500 for the first six months. A performance-based raise, if earned, would bump that up to $92,500.
Sheridan had an annual salary of nearly $80,000. Reynold said the town will hire a new town manager eventually, but the council has not discussed when, what the job duties will entail or at what salary. But the salary will likely be less, Reynold said, because the manager will no longer oversee utilities.
In the meantime, Yagelski will look for ways to streamline the utilities for cost savings.
“I think it’s really good for the town to have one person full time to focus on these issues,” Reynold said.
Indeed, Yagelski will have a lot on his plate his first day on the job, Oct. 29. He will have to iron out 2013 budgets for the city’s four utilities by the end of the year, in addition to working with financial consultant Greg Guerrettaz on the proposed rate hike for Gem customers.
Yagelski said he is looking forward to the role.
“I just saw it as an opportunity for growth for myself,” said Yagelski, a Crawfordsville resident and former operations superintendent for Indiana American Water.
The council Wednesday agreed to allow Sheridan and his family to keep the town’s health insurance plan through the end of the year but has yet to decide whether to continue paying Sheridan’s salary.
Sheridan’s letter states he considers his pay a term of his resignation. Reynold said while he talked with Sheridan about paying him through the end of the year, it would require approval by the entire council.
Severance packages may be common in the private sector, but they are rare in local government, said Mike Bozymski, a deputy examiner for the Indiana State Board of Accounts.
Bozymski said such packages are allowed if the council passes an ordinance and if the town’s attorney states the package is in accordance with state and federal laws. Indiana code does not prohibit giving pay or insurance to employees who no longer work for a municipality.
“There have been some (communities that give severance packages), but it’s not very common, especially in light of the current economy in the last several years,” Bozymski said.
Reynold acknowledged Sheridan’s accomplishments in the past eight years, including the creation of the Cumberland Pennsy Trail, the streetscape along U.S. 40, and various grants for other infrastructure projects. Reynold said he would not discuss specific reasons on why he asked Sheridan to step down, but he will write a letter of recommendation.
Sheridan said he’s disappointed to be leaving the community.
“I think it’s very likely it’ll take far more than two months to find another job,” Sheridan said.