Town Planner Larry DiRe has assumed duties as interim town manager. DiRe replaces Assistant Town Manager Bob Panek who resigned last week. DiRe brings a wealth of urban planning and government experience, as well as an intimate knowledge of the town code. Mr. DiRe has been instrumental in rewriting town ordinances in order to make them more efficient and applicable to the town’s current standing.
DiRe was the first choice to replace former town manager Brent Manuel on an interim basis after Manuel’s resignation, however town code was written so that only the assistant town manager could fill that role.
Mr. DiRe has already proven to be an asset in the role. A major sticking point for the Main Street Community Enhancement Board was the language in the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the town. An MOU is a nonbinding agreement between two or more parties outlining the terms and details of an understanding, including each parties’ requirements and responsibilities. An MOU is often the first stage in the formation of a formal contract.
The Community Enhancement Board(CEB) took issue with language that stated the money received from the town ($151,950) was a grant, where the board believed it should be changed to ‘funded’, arguing that the town was funding the project, not providing a grant. This is critical as the CEB is in the process of becoming its own 501c non-profit organization, and being able to show commitment and funding is part of it, as well being recognized as legitimate Virginia Main Street project. Chairman Andy Buchholz and Bob Panek went head to head over this, but as interim town manager, there was no budging. This led to animosity and a situation that was toxic and degenerating.
The situation became so bad that CEB Program Manager Michelle Gorman, who has dual reporting to the CEB board and the town manager, resigned. Gorman found she could not function under the leadership decisions being made by Mr. Panek and tendered her resignation. However, when Panek resigned, Gorman went back to the board and asked if could rescind her resignation. The CEB board voted to bring her back.
As for the MOU, CEB Chairman Buchholz told the Mirror that working with DiRe, they are in the process of getting the language to more accurately reflect the direction the organization is trying to go.
The future is still unwritten
In off the record conversations with a member of town council, the Mirror asked just what the big issue with Mr. Panek was. In our opinion, the health club debacle wasn’t really a big deal. The Mirror has since confirmed that Mr. Panek used his own money to pay Bay Creek Health Club, so a slap on the wrist and serious sit-down may have been sufficient. The Mirror was told that the issue really came down to a serious disconnect between the town manager and council. Town Council is not only responsible for the well-being of the town and its residents, but also for its staff. Decisions about the well-being of the staff are made by the council, not the town manager. Also, the town manager serves at the pleasure of town council. Mr. Panek was allowed to put the health club offer on the agenda, but the council rejected it for purely fiscal reasons. Going forward with it after the fact was not taken well. The fact that Mr. Panek was not allowed to give a 30-day notice speaks to the town council’s displeasure.
More importantly, many sense that the town is on the verge of really going to the next level. There are so many positive indicators. The town is about to hire a new town manager, and it is important that they be able to come into a fresh, non-toxic environment. With a new mayor and several new members elected to town council, for the first time in years, people are looking at what’s been going on historically in Cape Charles with a critical eye towards cutting dead wood on staff and doing away with the subterfuge and backroom meddling and undermining that has damaged several careers here, most notably former town manager Brent Manuel.
When pressed about what Mr. Panek’s role would be in the future, the answer is “don’t know”. The statement from the town is that Mr. Panek is still on staff and will be managing capital projects, presumably as a consultant working at 10% of the projects he manages. What that means is still unclear, but given his experience with the multi-use trail, which is beginning Phase III, with more phases to come, using his expertise on that project, at least on an interim basis, might make sense.