By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The June 12 Annual Town Meeting is going remote after the Fairhaven Selectboard voted to accept Town Moderator Mark Sylvia’s recommendation on April 26.
Selectboard member Keith Silvia claimed that “quite a few people” have called him to oppose another remote town meeting, calling instead to hold the event outside, perhaps on the football field at the high school.
Selectboard member Bob Espindola reminded Mr. Silvia that the town moderator in the past had already explained why an attempt to hold the meeting outdoors could be problematic, factoring in the weather and the fact that Fairhaven’s representative Town Meeting is the largest in the commonwealth. Logistically, a remote Town Meeting is more effective, let alone safer, as the pandemic lingers, albeit into its final few months, hopefully.
Organizing a large-scale outdoor event that can accommodate social distancing is not the best way to conduct town business, Mr. Sylvia told the Selectboard. Furthermore, the Town has already held two successful town meetings in 2020. Contrary to Mr. Silvia’s experience, Town Moderator Sylvia said he had not received a single call from someone complaining about the prospect of the June 12 Town Meeting being held via Zoom, with feedback being “generally positive,” he said.
Mr. Espindola pointed out that the Town has hosted numerous pre-Town Meeting technology trainings to offer support to those unfamiliar with the technology and can lend laptops and tablets to those who need them to attend the remote Town Meeting. Essentially, he said, if one really wants to participate in the remote Town Meeting, there are viable ways to achieve that.
Mr. Silvia, unconvinced, recalled how he found himself unable to navigate the technology and remotely vote and referenced an inability to see or hear what was being said at times.
Mr. Sylvia recommended anyone who is not confident in their ability to participate remotely may attend one of the many training sessions that the IT Department will again offer. Training sessions will also be broadcast on Cable Access TV.
As far as he is concerned, said Mr. Sylvia, the Town has hosted a successful remote Town Meeting before.
“And we will do it again as best as we effectively can,” he added.
When Mr. Espindola motioned to hold the Town Meeting remotely, Mr. Silvia would not provide a second. Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas seconded, and the motion passed 2-0.
The board also approved reducing the quorum from 100 to 40, as per the governor’s allowance, which passed 2-1, with Mr. Silvia opposed.
Later in the meeting, the board made its recommendations on some of the articles on the Annual Town Meeting Warrant that Interim Town Administrator Wendy Graves had ready for them to review. The articles and the board’s recommendations remained uncomplicated for the most part up until the introduction of the Board of Public Work’s Article 44 to change the tree warden from an elected to an appointed position.
Mr. Espindola motioned to yield to the petitioner, seconded by Mr. Silvia, passing 2-1, with Mr. Freitas opposed.
Article 46, resident Ann Richard’s citizen’s petition* proposing the board change its name to Select Board, got a motion to recommend adoption from Mr. Espindola and a second by Mr. Silvia, with both men voting in favor 2-1 with Mr. Freitas again opposed.
All three board members voted to yield to petitioner Donna McKenna on Article 47 to increase the Selectboard from three members to five; however, on Article 48 to create a nine-member Fairhaven Charter Committee, again Mr. Espindola and Mr. Silvia voted to yield to the petitioner (Kyle Bueno) 2-1 with Mr. Freitas opposed.*
For Article 49, Mary Freire-Kellogg citizen’s petition* proposing an Ethics Committee, Mr. Espindola preferred to yield to petitioner, but his motion was not seconded.
“I’m opposed to it, so…” said Mr. Freitas. “It sounds like he’s opposed to it,” he said, referring to Mr. Silvia.
“Yeah,” said Mr. Silvia.
The vote was 2-1 for a motion to pass over* the article, with Mr. Espindola opposed.
The vote was also 2-1, with Mr. Freitas opposed to yielding to petitioner for Article 50, another of Ms. Freire-Kellogg’s citizen’s petitions*, proposing a term limit of two consecutive terms for elected board members. Her next article, Article 51, to amend the Right to Farm Bylaw to waive the need to acquire an animal permit at properties exceeding 5 acres, received a unanimous 3-0 vote to yield to petitioner. Her third citizen’s petition, Article 52 to reduce the recall petition signature requirements from 20% of registered voters to 10%, received a 2-1 vote to pass over*, with Mr. Espindola opposed to the motion.
Article 53 is a similar citizen’s petition offered by Planning Board Chairperson John Farrell that calls for the same reduction in registered voter percentage but calls for an extension of the time allowed to gather signatures from 14 days to 30 days. The motion was 2-1 to yield to the petitioner, with Mr. Freitas opposed.
In another matter, Mr. Espindola said he was disappointed that he had to ask again for the third meeting in a row for an update from Ms. Graves on the usage trends and spending of taxpayer dollars on town counsel. Ms. Graves said the Town’s insurance underwriter emailed her to inform her that he had received Mr. Espindola’s initial email requesting information.
Still, she had not prepared any of the information Mr. Espindoa requested. He was concerned, given that Mr. Freitas had added another matter requiring town counsel to the executive session agenda “to investigate charges of criminal misconduct,” presumably related to the information about Ms. Graves that had been shared with the Neighb News back in January.
Resident Phil Washko inquired about his request to have the town administrator hiring process added to the 4/26 agenda.
Just before, Mr. Espindola referred to correspondence from Town Counsel Tom Crotty from that day stating that it would be a conflict of interest for Ms. Graves to participate in soliciting bids for a new hiring consultant because she has a financial interest in obtaining the job herself.
Mr. Espindola said one mitigating strategy would be to hire a co-TA of sorts to assist in those areas that would be inappropriate for Ms. Graves to facilitate; however, since the matter was not listed on the agenda, there was no ensuing motion or vote for a solution. He asked Ms. Graves whether this would hold up the TA search process even further now, to which she replied, “I’ve sent out some emails, and I’ve received some back so far.”
Mr. Washko asked if Mr. Freitas would add the matter to the next meeting’s agenda, but Mr. Freitas would not state whether he would or not.
“We’ll see how the next agenda unfolds,” said Mr. Freitas.
Also during the meeting, the board heard a presentation on the annual audit from Audit Manager Zack Fentross from Melanson. The Town received a clean opinion on its audit, the best it can receive, which it received during the years prior.
Mr. Freitas wanted Mr. Fentross to reiterate for the people watching from home that the Town’s finances are good and that the people running the finances are doing a good job, which he did. Mr. Espindola commented that it was great to hear that the trend has continued and specified that the audit was for the last fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020.
Planning Board Chairperson John Farrell asked how long the Town had been using the same audit group and when it last went out to bid, which Town Accountant Anne Carreiro said was in 2021. Mr. Espindola, who joined the board in 2012, said he has only known the Town to work with Melanson since he started and pointed out that the Department of Revenue recommends putting the annual audit out to bid once every five to eight years so fresh eyes can review the Town’s finances. When he proposed going out to bid for the next audit, Ms. Graves informed him that last year the Town entered into a contract with Melanson that will last another two years.
Mr. Espindola remarked that a best practice would be to form an Audit Committee independent of those that work directly with the Town’s finances and suggested that he would broach the subject again in the future.
In other business, the board voted to forego its Right of First Refusal for farmland owned by Peter and Melissa DeTerra that would be removed from Chapter 61 to accommodate a solar photovoltaic installation. Ms. Graves said she consulted with the relevant department heads for their recommendations before the meeting, as requested by Mr. Espindola.
Newly elected Tree Warden Don Collasius asked the board to consider allowing for an increase in the pay rate for contracted tree work help, which he said is too low to attract help to assist him in the over 150 outstanding requests for tree work.
Ms. Graves said she contacted a firm to conduct a wage classification study on the position for $650, and the board expressed support for Mr. Collasius’s request. He will have to wait, however, until the town administrator makes a final decision on the rate.
Ms. Graves announced that the Town’s health insurance rates for FY22 will increase by 9%. Mr. Espindola asked her to elaborate on the Town’s insurance, which is funded by a trust. Ms. Graves said the Town is “self-insured,” meaning that its rates are based on usage. When more employees are sick, rates go up, she said; healthier employees mean lower rates.
Mr. Espindola pointed out that Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia somewhat recently voted to disband the Employee Wellness Committee, which was one of the ways the Town had been trying to reinforce healthy lifestyles and habits for its employees in an attempt to keep insurance rates lower.
Before adjourning, Mr. Espindola called attention to the true definition of a recusal, for example, a board member’s recusal from a matter due to a conflict of interest. He emphasized that a recusal does not simply imply a recusal from voting, but it also includes refraining from any deliberation or participation on the matter.
Mr. Espindola then requested that his fellow board members pay closer attention to the myriad ways they may be violating the Open Meeting Law through their email correspondences. He said one such way is when a board member replies to an email to allow the two other board members to read the sending board member’s comment or opinion on a matter that should be discussed during open session. He asked not to be included in this practice in the future.
*The Selectboard does not have the authority to pass over articles that were submitted by citizen petition. On all those articles, the board is only voting to show its recommendations.
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