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Council divided 4 to 3 on Hartford

WESTERLY — One councilor, with more than a decade of service, says Steven Hartford was the finest town manager he ever worked with. Another councilor says residents had grown disenchanted with Hartford and the only solution was to start fresh with a new manager. It was that difference of opinion that led Hartford to resign.

“He’s the best town manager I’ve worked with in 11 years in office,” Caswell Cooke Jr. said.

Hartford resigned Thursday, saying the majority of town councilors did not support him — a situation he said would make it impossible for him to manage the town. Councilors said Friday that they were split, with four councilors signaling a lack of support and three wanting Hartford to stay on in the position he filled in February 2009. Council President Diana Serra acknowledged that she favored Hartford’s decision to leave, saying the number of residents “unhappy” and “unsatisfied” with Hartford was growing.“I felt there was a lack of community support and it was going to get progressively worse,” Serra said.

Councilor Andrew Gencarelli, one of the four councilors who did not support Hartford, said the council’s private meeting with Hartford Thursday shook him emotionally and was “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in my life.”

“Certain issues seemed to keep coming up and to be problems to me and the people who voted for me. There was a bad perception and I felt like it was getting worse,” Gencarelli, serving his first term as an elected official, said.

Councilor Kenneth Parrilla, who was first elected in 2008, echoed Gencarelli, saying Thursday’s session with Hartford was “probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do since I was on the board.” Parrilla said Hartford’s resignation reflected an “accumulation of things; this didn’t happen overnight.”

Councilor Christopher Duhamel praised Hartford’s work helping the town recover from the floods of 2010 and the ongoing effort to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy.

“I wasn’t in favor of accepting his resignation as manager. I wanted the council to continue working with him. Wherever he’s going, he’s going to very successful. He’s an incredible person and a great leader that Westerly benefited from,” Duhamel said.

The town is confronted by a host of complex projects and other developments that Hartford was deeply involved with, Duhamel said, including litigation stemming from Copar Quarries of Westerly, and $50 million worth of capital improvement and road projects.

Although there is disagreement among councilors regarding Hartford, Duhamel said councilors remain respectful of each other and will be able to govern effectively.

Hartford successfully obtained $3.7 million in federal grants for a total reconstruction of Canal Street and White Rock Road, kept taxes nearly flat for five years, and helped the town achieve strong ratings from both Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poors, financial ratings services whose ratings affect municipalities’ ability to borrow money for building projects, Cooke said.

“We’re in very good shape as a town,” Cooke said. “Things are going very well.”

News of Hartford’s resignation came as a surprise. Earlier in the week, Serra and Hartford had said the meeting Thursday would be partially dedicated to the council’s annual review of his job performance.

“I think the town manager, overall, did a good job. The town has done well over his tenure. I was surprised to hear what happened, because to my knowledge it was going to be a review of his job performance or an evaluation,” Robert Ritacco, chairman of the Democratic Town Committee, said.

Hartford said he could not explain what happened to cause a majority of councilors to lose confidence in him.

“I will let my record and my accomplishments speak for themselves. Can I explain what happened? No, I can’t, but I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve the town as its manager for these last 4½ years,” Hartford said. “I will look on the bright side. It will give me the opportunity to pursue other career options which I have been looking at. When one door closes, another will open. The town is in good shape and things are really going in the right direction, so I know Westerly will be just fine.”

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