SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — South Kingstown Town Manager Robert Zarnetske announced this morning that, following a falling out with a majority of the town council, he will resign his post.
The Independent has learned Zarnetske, who will step down June 14, was pushed out by a majority of the town council for a variety of reasons, with the recent failure of an $85 million school bond — and Zarnetske's refusal to increase funding for the school department by more than a million dollars in the most recent budget — as the breaking point.
Current and former town officials also said this week that some had wariness about his understanding of community needs and values as well as reservations regarding a conflict with the former department director of administrative services.
“I have worked in government for nearly three decades and I recognize when my professional judgments are no longer aligned with the prevailing policy narratives. I respect the right of elected officials to set the agenda and it is clear to me that South Kingstown’s path will be not be the path I have helped blaze in the last several years," Zarnetske said in a written statement.
South Kingstown Town President Abel Collins confirmed that the majority of the council wanted Zarnetske out of the post that he assumed a little over three years ago. Recreation Director Terry Murphy will assume the acting town manager's post following Zarnetske's departure.
According to officials familiar with the discussions, the town council took action on Zarnetske's employment in a closed-to-the-public 1 a.m. session on April 12 that followed a lengthy and contentious public meeting on other issues.
"In the end, I think everyone will be better off with this change. Rob has become a distraction," Collins said, putting some of the blame on the ouster from the fallout of the May 4 school facilities referendum.
Collins and others noted that Zarnetske, who is a member of the school building committee, aggravated some people with positions he took in the meetings.
"If (former Town Manager) Steve Alfred was here, he would have participated, but that means he would have listened. Rob got very involved. There were times when he gave a lot of push back on the process and he let some of those things get the better of him," Collins said without describing the specifics.
Points of Contention
When asked if one specific issue — more than others — brought more poison to Zarnetske's well of good favor, Collins pointed to this school improvement project and the key Stage II application for South Kingstown’s proposed multi-million-dollar upgrade of school facilities.
Earlier this year Zarnetske was among four opponents on the school building committee who essentially voted to delay the process of the upgrade moving forward until more financial information was provided by the town's school committee and others, according to town council member Deborah Kelso.
The project moved ahead anyway with a majority vote but was ultimately rejected by town residents by a more than two-to-one margin. The failure was blamed by several key participants on a growing issue of a lack of "trust" and "transparency" — and suggestions about honesty — that fanned hostilities toward the differing camps.
The vote was a stinging rebuke to school committee members and advocates for the divisive school improvement issue.
Collins acknowledged the flaming tension in town over the school issue and said "Rob allowed himself to be drawn into it" because he was vocal during building committee meetings on various issues.
Kelso saw it differently.
"Rob felt he didn't have enough information from the school committee and kept asking for it and didn't get it," she said. "He was concerned about the financial health of the project and wanted to protect taxpayers’ investments. I find no fault in that."
Schools Superintendent Linda Savastano said that Zarnetske had always shown strong support for her and local schools, according to an April 30 email she sent to Zarnetske.
"While we would engage in healthy debate and not always agree, I know that he had the best interest of the community and the people who live here as his priority," she said. "He would tell me what I did not want to hear, but needed to hear. I am truly grateful for the way that Rob pushed my thinking and made me better."
Zarnetske said in a statement that “the last year has been an extremely challenging one for the community. My efforts to serve as a unifying force have not been as successful as I had hoped. The failure of the school facilities bond is emblematic of the challenges the town now faces.”
But this was only one among other issues that led to Zarnetske's departure, a move that may have been inevitable following November's election as Collins said he was not sure newly-elected council members "came in with a lot of trust" in Zarnetske's leadership.
"There were some people who wanted to give Rob an extra-long chance and others who were chomping at the bit for a change," Collins explained.
Kelso said she couldn't reveal information from the closed session in which the axe fell on Zarnetske, but that she was not in favor of forcing him out. She declined to name another council member who felt similarly.
In the final view of what amounts to a 3-2 sentiment to push Zarnetske out, "there was just a sense we (a majority of the council) need a fresh start and a new direction and where we want to head," Collins said.
Other sources said that in addition to the lost school referendum, issues have also arisen about Zarnetske irking some school committee and council members by refusing to bend to their private demands that he — rather than the council itself — increase the school budget this year by an additional $1 million.
Such a move would save elected officials of holding a vote — that may or may not have passed — to raise spending. Some officials said that refusal triggered the long-simmering action against him. By holding his ground, he would force council members to face a public vote, they said.
In addition, other sources said, council members voiced concerns about Zarnetske lacking a "shared and understood sense of the community's values," though that term remained loose and undefined.
He also reportedly had some clashes that led to the departure earlier this year of Aimee Reiner, former Director of Administrative Services.
Zarnetske, while not acknowledging individual issues, noted he felt the council's actions were about more than just the loss of the school improvement vote.
The Town Manager's View
"My work as town manager is done. I’ve moved us as far forward as I can under the circumstances and it’s time for someone else to pick up from here," Zarnetske said. He plans to help proposed interim Town Manager Terry Murphy until July 14 — a month after he leaves office — and then will no longer be involved with government operations.
Details of his contract provisions for separations or any payouts were not immediately available.
"I am torn about leaving," Zarnetske said. "I like to work and I like a challenge. I enjoy the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing difficult things. And I take pride in knowing that my methods are successful far more often than not."
He looked back on his career both on the local as well as the federal level where he worked with U.S. senators, built a national library, managed legislation that helped the those underserved in communities and represented the poor and disenfranchised as an attorney.
"Of all the things I’ve been lucky enough to do, being a town manager has been the hardest," he said. "And it’s funny because local government systems are not particularly complex. What make local management so difficult is the context."
"When it comes to our own homes — and our own hometowns — familiarity, entitlement, nostalgia and self-interest often overwhelm whatever objectivity we might otherwise bring to bear on any given question. The flash point for local passions is extremely low," he noted.
In local government, Zarnetske said, "people are triggered by small things. Too many are easily 'shocked,' 'offended' and 'appalled' when presented with information that challenges their control over a territory they consider wholly their own."
He said that they represent that "they know with absolute certainty" what their community needs or should have, or doesn’t need, but he did not in his statement offer examples of what is happening in South Kingstown.
"They perceive threats to what they love about their place in the world and they zealously guard against encroachments upon their prerogatives." he said.
"All of this would be fine except for one underlying truth — there are fewer threats than most people perceive and most people don’t recognize the danger posed by staying the course without adjustment," he said, acknowledging that he often has challenged the status quo accepted by town residents and other town officials.
"Nothing stays the same. Nothing can. Holding too tightly to the familiar is like gasping at sand; the harder you hold on the more it slips through your fingers. And so, in my career, in my life, I have been an agent of change. Sometimes my role is appreciated. Sometimes it is not," he said.