By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Selectboard on 6/30 initiated the Request for Proposals (RFP) process to retain a consultant to perform an employee engagement and work culture survey to assess the work environment and management of Fairhaven workers and staff.
Town Administrator Mark Rees made the recommendation, saying, “Good management practices suggest that we engage our most valuable asset, which is our team of employees.”
He said the concern is to maintain an environment conducive to productivity where the “focus on customer service is critical.”
Private businesses often engage an outside consultant, said Mr. Rees, to look at, for example, employee satisfaction, communication, training, and to assess what works well or needs improvement.
“And identify other concerns that could be addressed to enhance overall work environment at Town Hall,” he said.
Selectboard member Bob Espindola said he was concerned about the cost and whether now was the right time, given the financial uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19.
“I think doing something like this is very healthy and would be great for the town to do,” said Mr. Espindola, although his perception of Town Hall’s lack of significant turnover in employment suggests to him that he is “not sure if there’s an issue here”.
Mr. Rees proposed seeking a grant through the Massachusetts Community Compact, which the Town signed in 2017.
“If we could get a grant for it I would be absolutely in favor of it,” said Mr. Espindola, just as long as the taxpayers receive some benefit in return. “And I’m not sure I understand what that is yet.”
According to Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas, the existence of “a morale problem at Town Hall” has persisted for some time.
“All three of the former selectmen, we received letters from certain individuals,” said Mr. Freitas. “I don’t think there’s any denying it — well, we could deny it, but then there’s the letters.”
Mr. Freitas referred to a meeting he attended where Mr. Rees and Attorney Jamie Kenny of the law firm Clifford & Kenny were both present, adding that he “tried to get this [assessment] off the ground” at that time.
“It didn’t go quite well,” said Mr. Freitas. “I was basically asked to … identify the people who were talking to me in private … and I just didn’t think that was fair.”
He said Ms. Kenny suggested he should “pull up my big boy panties” after he found one letter discussed during the meeting “unfair.”
Mr. Freitas then volunteered to make the motion for an RFP for the assessment as long as the motion included his demand that the law firm Clifford & Kenny not be a participant.
“I don’t want Miss Kenny anywhere near this report,” Mr. Freitas said, and he further scorned Ms. Kenny for her alleged unfairness and disrespect toward him. “I don’t want her anywhere near it. I don’t think that she was very fair with me in the way things happened…. It wasn’t handled very well as far as I am concerned.”
Mr. Freitas also offered to remove himself from the RFP process and the ensuing assessment and allow another Selectboard member to “take the forefront and deal with it.”
“And I don’t want the report to come through me,” added Mr. Freitas. “And that’s how I feel. I think this has to be handled in a way … so that people feel they can speak and not have to worry … I don’t think people should have to identify themselves.”
Mr. Espindola likened the matter to putting the proverbial cart before the horse.
“Because we don’t even know what we’re approving. We don’t have a proposal. We don’t know what the cost is,” said Mr. Espindola.
He called the motion “premature.”
Mr. Rees reminded Mr. Espindola that the board was simply requesting proposals without any commitment.
“Can anybody deny that we haven’t received letters?” asked Mr. Freitas.
“We received one letter and we received an anonymous letter,” said Mr. Rees.
“No, sir,” said Mr. Freitas, specifying that the particular letter he handed to Mr. Rees was “confidential” rather than “anonymous,” in addition to other emails about a morale problem at Town Hall.
“It’s not just one,” said Mr. Freitas. “I’m not making this up.”
“I’m not disagreeing,” Mr. Rees replied.
“For the record, I welcome this report,” he continued, adding that because there are some “disgruntled employees with their own agenda in their hand,” an independent party should be engaged to assist.
“So now you are saying there are disgruntled employees,” Mr. Freitas said to Mr. Rees.
“Yes,” Mr. Rees confirmed. “[I’m] saying there may be some with their own agenda.”
“My question is,” said Mr. Freitas, “Shouldn’t we do everything … and absolutely get to the bottom of this?”
“Absolutely,” Mr. Rees replied.
“At that meeting I was treated not so nice,” Mr. Freitas again lamented.
Mr. Espindola reiterated his support for the assessment, but only if the cost is covered by a grant, and proceeded to voice his ‘nay’ in a 2-1 vote in favor of sending an RFP.
Following the conversation, Mr. Espindola proposed a sequel to the 2012 Department of Revenue’s Division of Local Services (DLS) financial management review that resulted in 33 recommendations to improve financial practices, procedures, and policies.
At no cost to the Town, Mr. Espindola said the DLS would study the COVID-19 financial impact on the town and recommend whether strategic cuts in services and withdrawals from the finance reserves might be needed to balance future budgets.
Meanwhile, the town still faces costly mandated wastewater treatment plant upgrades and a tentative plan to build a new public safety facility, Mr. Espindola said, with board member Keith Silvia later adding that those costs combined would be roughly $80 million.
Mr. Espindola said the DLS would review the 2012 recommendations still in progress, as well as look for any new areas where best practices have been developed over the last eight years, and any new resources, tools, or funding sources.
The only recommendation Mr. Espindola suggested the DLS not review is the one the voters rejected: eliminating the elected Board of Public Works. He asked the Selectboard to approve allowing Mr. Rees to pursue the review.
“I’m not in favor at this time,” said Mr. Freitas. “The last time this was done … it created sort of a hornet’s nest … Some stuff was good, other stuff upset people. I don’t want to see us going there.”
Mr. Espindola agreed the BPW recommendation was controversial, which is why he would now ask to omit it from the study.
“There were some tremendous recommendations … that have been an enormous asset to the town,” said Mr. Espindola, including updating the IT department, hiring a town administrator, and merging the finance director and treasurer positions. “It was all those things and most of them we did.”
Mr. Freitas preferred to table the matter for a later meeting, saying he needed more information.
“This is really important for us to do,” said Mr. Espindola, and he asked if Mr. Freitas would entertain an alternate motion to authorize Mr. Rees to contact the DLS to get Fairhaven on the schedule because the DLS is scheduling the studies well into October. The motion’s caveat would be that if a board member reviewed the materials on the next Friday and still had concerns then he could contact Mr. Rees and the matter would appear on the next meeting’s agenda.
“I think that’s fair, I’ll second that,” Mr. Freitas said before offering some additional wiggle room, saying the matter would only be held if the “majority” of the board has concerns after reviewing the materials on Friday. “I think that’s fair.
“Look at that,” said Mr. Freitas, “we’re all playing nice together.”
In Town Meeting news, the board issued its approval for the July 25 Annual Town Meeting to be held remotely via Zoom and approved Town Moderator Mark Sylvia’s request to decrease the quorum from 100 to 40. Because of COVID-19, the town could reduce the quorum to as low as 10 (10% of the regular quorum), but Mr. Sylvia said that was not appropriate for Fairhaven.
Resident and BPW member Robert “Hoppy” Hobson joined the conversation remotely from his flip-phone.
“That’s how old I am,” he said.
He voiced his opposition to the remote town meeting and advocated for an outdoor town meeting on the high school football field.
“Not all the older people have all the special phones and all these passwords. Prior to this [meeting] I tried to get on the Marine Resources [Committee meeting] … and I couldn’t get through,” said Mr. Hobson. “Email … and all this other stupid stuff…. I just don’t understand why we can’t have a town meeting at the football field … and sit six feet apart. It’s like we’re trying to hide everything and the Town of Fairhaven really needs a wakeup call.”
Mr. Sylvia reassured Mr. Hobson and the public that the town would provide Town Meeting members with a Chromebook or tablet if access to a device is an issue, and hotspot devices could be lent to those without Internet access. In-person and remote training sessions will also be offered, he said; a training video will be posted to the cable access channel, and a phone hotline for connectivity problems will be opened up until the day before Town Meeting. Furthermore, 10 days before Town Meeting there will be a practice “dry run” of the remote Town Meeting via Zoom.
Also on the agenda, Selectboard member Keith Silvia resigned from his Selectboard-appointed role on the Marine Resources Committee (MRC) so the board could reappoint Mr. Espindola. Mr. Espindola, however, would only second the motion if he and Mr. Freitas could relinquish one or two of their own liaison positions to Mr. Silvia to more evenly spread out the workload.
Mr. Espindola said he believed taking on the MRC role from Mr. Silvia would make the division of the board’s representation on the 18 town boards and committees further “lopsided,” as Mr. Espindola would then hold seven positions and Mr. Freitas would hold eight while Mr. Sylvia only held three.
“I hope that you would agree that we should share this a little bit more evenly,” Mr. Espindola said.
Mr. Freitas, while open to the idea, was uncomfortable straying from the written agenda that did not mention the appointments other than the MRC. He preferred a motion to accept Mr. Sylvia’s resignation and appoint Mr. Espindola.
It also fell to the Selectboard to choose the BPW member to replace Mr. Silvia. According to town bylaws, the Selectboard chooses the replacement.
The board chose Marcus Ferro for his legal expertise and experience over Lou Dutton’s public works career history. The vote was 2-1 with Mr. Freitas in favor of Mr. Dutton. Mr. Ferro will serve until the next election in April of 2021. He said he would run for election then.
Filling another vacancy, the Selectboard chose Cathy Melanson over Robert Grindrod for the open seat on the Economic Development Committee.
The board also approved the list of annual reappointments to town boards and committees, with a couple appointments held off until the next meeting.
On the COVID-19 front, Mr. Rees said that there have been 281 cases of the coronavirus in Fairhaven, with only one active case at the time of the meeting. The limited reopening of Town Hall “seems to be going very well,” he said, with proper social distancing and face mask usage observed.
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