By SCOTT JACKSON
Mayor Thomas Koch has reassigned longtime Planning Director Dennis Harrington to a different position within the Planning Department and appointed James Fatseas, the mayor’s chief of staff, to lead the department on an interim basis.
Harrington, however, said he remains planning director because the mayor lacks the authority to remove him from the post without approval from the City Council.
Koch, in a letter dated Tuesday, said he was reassigning Harrington to the position of director of transportation planning, a post that has remained vacant since Kristina Johnson left the department in January. Koch cited Harrington’s request to work on a reduced, 15 hours per week scheduled in a Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) request as the basis for the reassignment. The mayor said Harrington’s compensation and benefits would not be affected by the decision, nor would the terms of the FMLA request.
“In consideration of the time demands and the important role of the director of the Planning Department, the volume and complexity of the projects coming before the city for the foreseeable future will require energy and attention, which I understand you will be unable to devote to the work,” Koch said in the letter. “An interim director is the best solution in this circumstance.”
Fatseas, Koch’s selection as the interim director, has served as the mayor’s chief of staff since the Koch came into office in 2008. In April, Koch told The Sun Fatseas would serve as the administration’s point person for downtown redevelopment.
Harrington, who was appointed planning director in 2004 by then-Mayor William Phelan, responded to the decision on Wednesday in a letter to Koch. In it, he cited the 1973 state law that established the Quincy Planning Department. The law says the mayor is responsible for appointing a planning director and that director “may be removed by the mayor with the approval of the city council.”
“Your notice to me…is clearly not within your right as mayor as it controverts Massachusetts (state) law and the terms of my 2004 appointment. I will not accept any such unlawful reassignment,” Harrington wrote. “I intend to remain director of planning and community development until I vacate my position or I am removed with the approval of the Quincy City Council.”
Harrington added that he would continue to work with Fatseas in his position as Koch’s chief of staff and that he has “not missed one email, phone call or scheduled meeting” since his FMLA request was approved two months ago.
Harrington was not available for comment Thursday. A call to mayoral spokesman Chris Walker Thursday morning was not returned.
Council President Joseph Finn said he was concerned about protecting Harrington’s rights and making sure the council’s authority is protected.
“What I’m mostly concerned about is that Dennis Harrington’s rights are protected and the authority of the City Council is protected,” Finn said when reached by phone Thursday. “You can be sure that as the council president I will be giving it my utmost attention.”
Ward 6 Councillor Brian McNamee said the council needs to ensure the correct procedure was followed.
“We’re missing some process here. The City Council has to ensure the process is being observed,” he said.
McNamee suggested the matter should be placed on the agenda for the City Council once the body returns from its summer recess next month. The council should also hear from Harrington on the issue, McNamee added.
Councillor Doug Gutro, chairman of the council’s downtown committee and one of three candidates challenging Koch in next month’s mayoral preliminary election, refered to the reassignment as a “power grab.”
“I was stunned. It seemed like a pretty audacious power grab,” Gutro said, adding Koch’s action appears retaliatory for comments Harrington has made in the past about the mayor’s plans for the downtown.
“Dennis has an extraordinary and accomplished background as a city councillor, attorney and department head. He’s a spectacularly accomplished person who has relationships with the business community and federal and state government.”
Mayoral candidate William Phelan, who appointed Harrington planning director when he was mayor, said he was “disheartened to see our city’s leadership engaging in a feud of this nature.”
In a statement released to The Quincy Sun, Phelan said:
“The downtown redevelopment efforts have had a massive impact on our city – largely negative, to date – and the stakes are too high for Quincy’s residents and business.
“I would hope that our Mayor would abide by the protections afforded through the Family Medical Leave Act, and that our City Council would step in before allowing the appointment of an interim planning director without any clear hiring or vetting process. The easiest solution to finding out the truth amid the many sides of this story is to put sunlight on this disagreement. I will be filing a public records request for correspondence related to this matter,” Phelan said.
Posted below are the correspondence between Koch and Harrington as well as the state statue.