SALEM — When chief building official Sam Zannini was honored at his retirement party in December, some may have thought that was the last they would hear of the 36-year town employee.
It might have been until Monday night. That’s when the town’s elimination of Zannini’s job as of Dec. 31 — and a $42,000 severance payment to him — became the focus of a confrontation between Selectman Stephen Campbell and Molly McKean, the town human resources director.
McKean appeared before selectmen to describe an encounter she had with Campbell Feb. 1. Campbell went to Town Hall to speak to Town Manager Keith Hickey.
He spoke to McKean instead because Hickey was unavailable.
McKean said Campbell became angry about Zannini’s severance payment, but she did not mention the former employee by name. But Zannini’s name was included in a memo McKean sent to Hickey.
Copies of that memo were distributed to selectmen and discussed in a nonpublic session prior to selectmen’s regular meeting Monday.
McKean and Hickey said there have been three other confrontations between Campbell and town employees. The incidents prompted the four other selectmen to request an investigation of their colleague.
Campbell defended his actions Monday night, saying he didn’t think he was out of line when he questioned McKean. He said she even offered to provide additional information, but he didn’t need it.
Campbell also said he didn’t realize he upset other employees in his quest for answers to key town issues.
“I’m sorry if you think it’s intimidating,” he told McKean. “But that kind of expense came as a complete surprise.”
Campbell also didn’t identify Zannini by name, but said selectmen should have known about the severance agreement.
Board Vice Chairman James Keller and Selectman Michael Lyons said the severance payment was discussed in nonpublic session before Monday night’s meeting and that they could not comment in detail.
But Lyons did say selectmen knew about the severance agreement in advance, objecting to Campbell’s remarks.
“I totally 100 percent disagree with that,” Lyons said.
Lyons said he and Keller asked that the severance be discussed in public, but the other selectmen declined.
When Hickey presented his proposed 2013 budget to selectmen last summer, the plan called for eliminating two full-time positions and money for Fourth of July fireworks and the Cooperative Alliance for Regional Transportation bus service.
The $16,000 for fireworks and money for CART were eventually restored, but the two positions — including Zannini’s — were not.
Hickey said Zannini was retiring at the end of the year and his position was being eliminated to save money. He was replaced by a part-time building inspector.
Campbell said Monday he didn’t know why the town was paying a retiring employee $42,000. He declined to comment about the severance when contacted yesterday and would not identify Zannini by name.
But the memo McKean sent to Hickey mentions the six-month severance package for Zannini.
“As part of a reorganization of the Community Development Department, Mr. Zannini’s position was eliminated, effective January, 1, 2013,” the memo reads.
“Upon being told this, during the budgeting process, Mr. Zannini advised that he would retire concurrently with the elimination of his position. He was not planning to retire otherwise.”
While Campbell said he was surprised to hear of the severance, Hickey said yesterday the board knew Zannini was retiring only because his position was cut from the town budget.
“If the position hadn’t been eliminated, he would still be working,” Hickey said.
Board Chairman Patrick Hargreaves and Selectman Everett McBride Jr. could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Zannini also could not be reached yesterday for comment. He served in numerous town positions over the years, including health officer, code enforcement officer and plumbing inspector.
When he retired, fellow employees praised Zannini for his calm demeanor and ability to work with people to resolve problems.