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Dewey and town manager could part ways

Investigator finds no just cause, questions motives of complainants
Dewey commissioners are discussing and possibly voting to enter into a separation agreement with Town Manager Marc Appelbaum. FILE PHOTO
October 6, 2017

Story Location:
1 Dagsworthy Ave.
Dewey Beach  Delaware  19971
United States

Although a 112-page report into allegations against Dewey Town Manager Marc Appelbaum states the investigation uncovered no just cause to remove him, it appears police Chief Sam Mackert, beach patrol Capt. Todd Fritchman, and building inspector Bill Mears could get what they set out to do – oust Appelbaum.

Dewey Mayor TJ Redefer, candid about moving on from Appelbaum during the town’s recent election cycle, has scheduled an executive session and special commissioner’s meeting for 9 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 7. On the agenda is a discussion and possible vote to enter into a separation agreement with Appelbaum.

Redefer said Oct. 4 he could not speak much on the issue, but he said details were still being worked out. The goal is to have this done in a proper and respectful way, he said.

Appelbaum said Oct. 5 he had not been involved with any discussions about a separation agreement with the town. He said he found out about the agreement when he saw the meeting was posted.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’m not aware of any separation agreement.”

An earlier executive session was scheduled by the mayor for Sept. 29. It was posted Sept. 27 and then canceled Sept. 28. Unlike that meeting, Redefer said, this weekend’s meeting will not be canceled. He said his goal is to have as few executive sessions as possible while he’s mayor, and holding the meeting last week would not have been productive.

“Even if there’s not an agreement, there will be a meeting, because I’ve got a statement to make,” he said.

Appelbaum said he would do what was in the best interest of the town, and if that included a separation agreement, than he said he would sign one.

“Of course, I’m also hoping the New York Yankees might call me to play shortstop,” he said. “I would entertain any reasonable offer.”

Rick Cross, the attorney representing the complainants, said in a Oct. 4 email that he’ll reserve judgement on the agreement.

“I suppose it all depends on the terms. Certainly his departure is a welcome event by my clients,” he said. “If there is some payday/windfall associated with it, we would view that as inappropriate.”

Redefer said when he took over as mayor, he was concerned it would be difficult to find a person to replace Appelbaum. However, he said, he’s had numerous, highly qualified people reach out to say they’d be willing to help.

“We need to raise the bar,” he said. “This is not a business. This is a municipality. The bar is much higher, even in Dewey Beach.”

Investigation questions complainants’ motives

Dewey’s long-serving department heads may succeed in ousting Appelbaum, but not without raising questions about their departments.

Investigator Wax Walton’s raises questions throughout his report about the complainant’s motives for writing the letter and complaint. Walton’s report states the letter was sent in retaliation for Appelbaum inquiring into department operations and policies, scrutinizing budgets and expenditures, and otherwise not allowing these departments to function with the high degree of autonomy to which they were accustomed.

On page 14, Walton wrote, “We have concluded that Chief Mackert, Mr. Fritchman, and Mr. Mears are the catalysts for the letter and complaint, and all three intensely dislike Mr. Appelbaum. They represent the town’s “old guard” and have become accustomed to working under town managers who (apparently and allegedly) provided little to no supervision over their respective operations. All three have objected to Mr. Appelbaum’s inquiries and proposed changes with frequent disregard for the reasons or rationale behind the inquiries and proposals. They have made very public complaints that are, in our view, retributive and in retaliation for Mr. Appelbaum’s involvement in areas they believe to be their exclusive province. They have also embellished alleged facts because they dislike Mr. Appelbaum and his probing, stern, and sometimes overbearing management style.”

Elsewhere, the report states, Mackert, Fritchman and Mears harbor a disdain that “has caused some of the complainants to inflate many claims and, at times, make misrepresentations in an effort to attack Mr. Appelbaum.”

In another section of the report, Walton concludes many claims asserted in the letter are inflated, or are otherwise without merit. “We did not find any evidence to conclude that Mr. Appelbaum has engaged in a continuing course of sex discrimination or harassment against any individual employee or in general; nor could we conclude that he generally discriminated against employees based on their race. We also do not find that any of Mr. Appelbaum’s efforts to control expenses and investigate departmental operations and practices jeopardized public safety. To the contrary, these efforts appear to be generally rational and pragmatic.”

Fritchman and police Sgt. Cliff Dempsey declined to comment Oct. 4 on Walton’s findings. Dempsey, one of the original complainants, said Mackert also wouldn’t have anything to say on the matter. Both Fritchman and Dempsey said they had been told by Cross to not discuss the report.

Cross didn’t put much weight in the Walton’s statements on the department heads. “The investigator gave his personal views on what motivated the employees,” Cross said. “It is an obvious attempt to take the focus off the wrongful conduct of Appelbaum.”

Redefer declined to comment on what, if anything, will happen with Mackert, Fritchman and Mears. He said he plans to begin a discussion during the town’s regularly-scheduled council meeting Saturday, Oct. 14, in the Dewey Beach Life Saving Station, 1 Dagsworthy Ave.

“I think it’s an important time in Dewey. It’s time for every department head and employee to look at themselves in the mirror,” he said. “We have to evaluate the job we’re doing in every department.”