By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
The Fairhaven Selectboard on 12/21/20 took steps to appoint Finance Director/Treasurer/Tax Collector Wendy Graves as the interim town administrator, but the 2-1 vote reflected Selectboard member Bob Espindola’s concern about overburdening the workload of an internal candidate, especially one whose position is essential to the fiscal year 2022 budget season.
When Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas asked the board if either member had anyone in mind, Selectboard member Keith Silvia said, “I would love to see Wendy Graves. She’s been working with you for five years. I think she’s involved in the budget all the time; she knows what’s going on in here, and I think she’d be a perfect fit….”
While Ms. Graves would be “a great person to help someone who fills in as the interim person,” said Mr. Espindola, “If you think about it, she has a job that she has to do now….”
Ms. Graves was hired in 2013 as the treasurer/finance director, and the position was eventually expanded to encompass the tax collector position, a consolidation recommended by the Department of Revenue after a 2012 Financial Management Review.
“Are we loading her up?” Mr. Espindola continued. “It just doesn’t make sense to me when we have [enough money in the TA salary budget] to get an outside person.”
Current Town Administrator Mark Rees will leave on 1/8. The town’s professional search consultant, Bernie Lynch, estimates the town could need an interim TA from three weeks up to two and a half months.
Mr. Espindola said Mr. Lynch could likely provide the board with potential external interim TA candidates and asked if Mr. Lynch would unmute himself and talk about it.
But first, Mr. Freitas objected to hiring an outside candidate that “may not know anything,” citing a learning curve, taking the first two weeks on the job just “figuring out the streets” and “who’s who.” He said the hopes the new TA could start early February and voiced his support for hiring Ms. Graves.
“If it was Wendy that was offered this position … I’d like to see Anne Carreiro (the town accountant) beneath her to help her out,” Mr. Freitas said. “If her and Anne would like to do this,” then Mr. Freitas believes the two could manage the additional full-time workload. He called the two women “phenomenal employees,” and Mr. Silvia added, “Very qualified, very qualified.”
In response to Mr. Espindola’s plea for input, Mr. Lynch was reticent. “This really is outside of my scope entirely, but there are retired [town administrators] in the area that are available,” said Mr. Lynch. “Communities go a range of different ways,” some looking in-house while others look for outside experienced TAs.
He said it was a “judgment call” for the board and it was “tough” to involve himself in the decision. He later told Mr. Freitas the average rate for an external interim TA is about $75 an hour, which Mr. Freitas found too high.
Mr. Freitas said Mr. Rees should approach Ms. Graves and Ms. Carreiro the following day with the proposal and then “figure out how to slide people around.”
Sensing how an ensuing vote would result, Mr. Espindola then asserted that there would be sufficient money in the TA salary budget line to cover the cost of an experienced interim TA. He again emphasized that the town was well into the FY22 budget season.
“It’s a critical time for all of that process,” said Mr. Espindola. “The town deserves full resources available during that process [and Mr. Rees] relies heavily on [Ms. Graves and Ms. Carreiro].”
He said he supports having them both involved in the transition process but urged the board to “take advantage of the resources while we have funding in the budget.” He then motioned to hire an external interim TA, which was not seconded.
Mr. Freitas then motioned to have Mr. Rees approach Ms. Graves for the position, with Ms. Carreiro as an assistant, and said the board could meet again for a brief meeting for a formal appointment.
“I’ll gladly second that,” said Mr. Silvia. “I think they’re very confident. I think they’re real good people. I think they’ll take us in the right direction.”
“Let’s see what they can do,” said Mr. Freitas. “One of the names is already on there.” Earlier in the meeting, Mr. Freitas stated that Ms. Graves’ name was already on the list.
The Neighb News contacted Mr. Rees to confirm whether Ms. Graves is an applicant for the permanent TA position, but he did not respond.
Immediately after, the board accepted Ms. Carreiro’s resignation from the TA Search Committee. In her letter to the Selectboard, she gave no reason for her resignation.
Ms. Carreiro was appointed to the town employee seat on the committee and was the only woman among the seven members.
The Selectboard was slated to appoint Department of Public Works Superintendent Vincent Furtado but changed its mind to keep a woman on the committee.
Mr. Freitas said he received “a lot of emails,” as did Mr. Silvia, and said the two “got beat up about this.” He defended the original plan to appoint Mr. Furtado, saying that it was Mr. Rees’s suggestion. He pointed out that the boards and committees that appointed a member to the search committee each chose their own representative — all of which were men. The Selectboard then each appointed a representative, all of which were men, with Mr. Freitas appointing himself instead of choosing a member of the community at large.
The Selectboard’s choice for the town employee seat, Mr. Freitas said, was Ms. Carreiro, “a female,” which he claimed, “was done prior to any of this being brought up.” He then alluded to “an email or two emails” he received from committees or boards with appointees on the search committee that conveyed “that we’ve done something wrong.
“I think you need to look inner at yourselves and figure out why you didn’t send us over a female,” said Mr. Freitas. He said one email was “offensive” and suggested that the sender himself “step aside and allow a female” to sit on the search committee.
He then lauded himself and Mr. Silvia for advancing two women to fill the one interim TA position and claimed that he maintained from the start that he would like to see 50% of the TA candidates be women and is “not against a woman taking the job.”
Mr. Furtado said he had “zero problems” stepping aside. “Honestly, I won’t be offended whatsoever.”
Mr. Freitas said he preferred to avoid appointing a department head to the committee “because it could be considered later on that ‘you owe me one.’”
Mr. Furtado pointed out that the Board of Public Works oversees those positions, not the TA.
When Mr. Freitas asked if anyone on the Selectboard had a suggestion for an appointee, Mr. Espindola said that he was surprised to see Mr. Furtado’s name on the agenda since the board had not met to discuss Ms. Carreiro’s resignation or a candidate to replace her.
“It [is] a joint appointment of our board,” and the community’s response called for a woman appointee,” said Mr. Espindola. “This committee deserves to have a woman on it.”
Mr. Espindola said he reached out to Sewer Superintendent Linda Schick to ask her if she would be interested, adding that she holds a bachelor’s degree in science, two master’s degrees — one in marine biology and one in business administration — and has been a town employee since 1987.
“I thought that concept was a good one to tie Public Works in,” said Mr. Espindola. “I feel strongly that a woman should be that person, and I feel that Linda Schick is very qualified to be in that role….”
His motion to appoint her was not seconded.
Mr. Silvia then suggested Cathy Melanson for the seat, adding that she had been a member of the first search committee when Mr. Rees was hired. Ms. Melanson, however, is not a town employee, Mr. Espindola pointed out, but she does sit on the Planning Board, which has an appointment on the committee.
“The [appointment] was supposed to be for town staff,” said Mr. Espindola.
“It doesn’t have to be,” said Mr. Freitas. “It’s the three [Selectboard members] who choose.”
Resident Ann Richard asked to speak and pointed out that the first TA Search Committee meeting was that prior Monday and that while Mr. Freitas appointed himself, he did not attend the meeting. Mr. Freitas said he could not avoid a work-related conflict and would be present at the next meeting. He said he is busy between his job and his role on the Selectboard, but Ms. Richard replied, “You chose yourself, knowing you were busy….”
Mr. Freitas said it is “tiresome” getting “beaten up” and said he wished people knew “the full aspect of what’s going on” and that people shouldn’t judge him for putting his livelihood ahead of his town obligations.
At a meeting on 1/4/21, Ms. Graves was formerly appointed as interim TA. She will get her regular salary (approximately $114K) plus a stipend of $25/hour for 40 hours/week for a total of $1000/week. Mr. Espindola tried to get the other board members to pay a smaller amount, saying she cannot possibly spend 40 hours a week at her job and 40 hours a week at the TA job. He also noted that if she were to get the TA job permanently, they would either have to increase that salary by tens of thousands of dollars, or she would take a pay cut.
Ms. Graves started getting the stipend the next day, 1/5. Mr. Rees’s last day is Friday, 1/8.
The board discussed at length the hourly rate, the termination clause in the contract, and the vacation policy, deciding Ms. Graves would get paid the stipend in addition to her regular salary for holidays.
Also during the 12/21 meeting, Mr. Espindola asked to address emails that resident and local activist Diane Hahn had sent the board about alleged selective editing of government meetings posted to the Fairhaven public access channel. Ms. Hahn was specifically concerned about the recording of the 12/2 Board of Health meeting, during which BOH member Michael Ristuccia called her a “jerk” a split second after the gavel sounded adjournment. The comment could be heard when it ran live, but was subsequently cut out on the town’s website.
Director of Public Access Derek Frates said there has never been any intentional editing of anything recorded during public session, except for the occasional recess mid-meeting. Sometimes “things come out in human error,” he said. “Everything in session is what ends up on the broadcast.”
The Neighb News has requested several times that boards end the practice of muting the sound of Zoom virtual meetings during recesses, arguing that the press and the public would be able to hear the conversations that take place during a recess with a quorum present in the room if there were no pandemic restrictions.
“You’ve done an awesome job,” Mr. Freitas told Mr. Frates. “I think some people are going to complain no matter what happens….”
Mr. Freitas then addressed the practice of not allowing members of the press to physically attend board meetings throughout the pandemic, a development that the Neighb News has attempted in vain to rectify multiple times.
According to Mr. Freitas, Governor Charlie Baker announced that “press wasn’t allowed” to attend meetings physically.
“[We are] not telling them they can’t; the governor basically said we can’t,” stated Mr. Freitas.
However, in an email from town counsel Thomas Crotty on 11/2/20 that went to all three board members, Mr. Rees, and the Neighb News, Mr. Crotty disputed that claim, writing: “Unless the court rules otherwise, my understanding of the governor’s orders is that it is up to the local board to determine whose physical presence is essential, and who can otherwise attend remotely. I am not aware of any legal requirement that the press be allowed to physically attend public meetings when the public in general is not. That is left to local discretion.
“In that regard it may be useful to consider that the governor’s list of essential workers which was in effect last spring did include news reporters.”
Mr. Freitas further stated that “You rarely saw [members of the press] here,” and added, “You say ‘no,’ they want it even more.”*
He again claimed that allowing the press to attend is “not really our decision.” He said if the press were allowed to attend, then there could be upwards of “ten press members,” which would interfere with the board’s ability to allow people on the agenda to attend.
*A Neighb News reporter has physically attended nearly every regularly scheduled Selectboard meeting for the last 16 years; and during the last few years, our reporter has often been the only reporter in the room.
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