050918 WES interim town manager Rooney hh 95.JPG

Westerly Town Manager J. Mark Rooney

WESTERLY — If you're not sure who's running the town, you're not alone.

As it turns out, according to town officials, Town Manager J. Mark Rooney, who on Sept. 9 announced his intention to resign, will stay on for at least the rest of this week.

But on Monday, the Town Council did not discuss Rooney's status during the public portion of its meeting, even though he had already tendered his resignation. The council did, however, go into a private executive session to evaluate Rooney's job performance.

Rooney, who attended Monday's council meeting and participated in the executive session, declined to answer questions for this article, saying he had been asked by the council to refrain from making public comments.

Following the executive session, Town Council President Sharon Ahern announced that the council had not taken any votes pertaining to Rooney's job performance or on the other topics listed on the agenda for the private session.

On Sept. 9 Ahern acknowledged that she had accepted Rooney's resignation and said he had discussed interest in staying on to assist the council with the transition to a new town manager. At the time, Ahern said she anticipated discussing Rooney's resignation and offer to stay on for a period of time during the council meeting on Sept. 13.

On Tuesday, Ahern said that Rooney was continuing to work for the town.

"Mark Rooney is still the town manager as of today," Ahern said. "The Town Council has a plan and a firm leadership agenda and because, as you know, we were in executive session under personnel, we were advised by Town Solicitor [William] Conley that we could not discuss any details at this time, but action will be taken on Monday."

When asked whether Rooney would continue on for the rest of this week, Ahern initially said she was uncertain she could answer, but eventually said, "Yes. I don't want people to think that the town is without leadership. It most certainly is not."

Ahern said she had communicated with the chairpersons of some of the town's boards and commissions.

"I have reached out to some of the board chairs and told them 'Please rest assured we have a plan' so no one thinks we are in an era of disruption," Ahern said.

While the departure of a town manager can be "disturbing," Ahern said the position in Westerly and other municipalities tends to be one with a high turnover rate.

"I know it can be disturbing when a town manager leaves for whatever reason, but it's a tough job. Most managers don't stay as long as most people remember," Ahern said.

When asked whether it was appropriate for the council to go into executive session to discuss Rooney's evaluation and job performance after he had announced his resignation, Ahern, a lawyer, said she had consulted with Conley, the town's lawyer.

"I too questioned how that particular executive session was listed but the Town Council was reassured repeatedly by the town solicitor that it was appropriate," Ahern said.

The state Open Meetings Act, which sets out how municipal councils, boards and commissions conduct the public's business, allows private executive sessions to be called for specific reasons. One of the permitted executive session exemptions is to discuss personnel matters such as an employee's job performance. The law limits discussions in executive sessions to only the permitted issues listed on an agenda.

"Being an attorney myself I had inquired if [Conley] felt that was an appropriate listing, and he assured me repeatedly that it was. He being the attorney of record, we followed his opinion," Ahern said.

Conley declined to say exactly what the council discussed during the executive session.

"I can't tell you what they did in executive session but yes, I will affirm to you they acted appropriately and within their authority under the Open Meetings Act and engaged in a discussion that was about job performance and evaluation and consistent with the Open Meetings Act," Conley said.

Conley declined to say why the Town Council would evaluate the job performance of a town manager who had announced an intention to resign and soon leave. "That would be for someone on the Town Council to answer," Conley said.

Rooney started working as town manager in an interim capacity in May 2018 and then was appointed the permanent town manager. In a resignation letter dated Sept. 9, which The Sun obtained on Monday after filing a request under the state Access to Public Records Act, Rooney informed Ahern and the other members of the Town Council that he was "resigning in my position as town manager." He noted that "his letter of engagement" had expired in August and said he would await "a collective decision of a two, four, or six week transition for my last day in the office."

In the letter, Rooney points to several accomplishments during his tenure here, including presiding over completion of the municipal Harbor Management Plan and a revision of the Comprehensive Plan, completion of road projects under two bonds, and overseeing preparations for an upcoming dredge of Winnapaug Pond.

Rooney has not publicly announced his future plans. He was a finalist for the position of city administrator of Gretna, Neb., in May, but did not get the position. He was also a finalist for a municipal position in Joliet, Ill. in early 2020 and a finalist for a position in Panama City Beach, Fla., in late 2019.

He came to Westerly following more than seven years as village administrator in Carpentersville, Ill.

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