PEPPERELL — A citizens’ petition demanding “full disclosure” of details behind a closed-door 15-month contract extension for town administrator Robert Hanson in April is fueling a long-held notion in some circles that more happens behind closed doors than in public view.
It’s a notion apparently based on the days prior to the current Board of Selectmen, when little was said in public during very short board meetings, except by town administrator Robert Hanson.
On June 23, the day of the $1 million override vote, residents Richard Potts and Richard Aubin solicited signatures for the petition outside the polls — acquiring 377 names by day’s end, and according to them, engendering “thank-yous” from a broad spectrum of residents.
Hanson’s contract — set to expire June 30, 2009, was extended by a 2-1 vote of selectmen, setting no pay increase in his $91,102 salary, other than potential cost-of-living increases. The closed-door meeting had been scheduled to discuss the library union contract.
The minutes show Selectman Joseph Sergi seconded Chairman Lyndon Johnson’s motion to discuss the contract but voted against it. Sergi said he seconded the motion “for discussion,” but that the extension was “premature” because the Personnel Bylaw specifies the administrator may be appointed to either a one- or three-year term.
Hanson has one year left on his contract. The 15-month extension leaves neither one nor three years left before he retires. At the very least, Sergi said, the extension flies against the “spirit” of the personnel bylaw.
As a contracted employee, however, Hanson is exempt from the local personnel law, according to state law Chapter 41, Section 108N. The law states in part that it “prevails over any conflicting provision of local government.”
Hanson said he deliberately had approached an “experienced” board familiar with his track record. He said the extension helps him fix the date of his retirement and allows time for him to finish up town business before his departure.
None of the selectmen say they knew Hanson was going to make his request.
Johnson said he is very satisfied with Hanson’s performance and that his experience is crucial right now. Sergi said he personally likes Hanson but as a “process oriented” person he wants more put down on paper. He has also pushed to inaugurate annual evaluations of Hanson’s performance, as specified in the personnel bylaw.
In the view of Potts and Aubin, the extension was granted during one of outgoing chairman and “townie” Darrell Gilmore’s last meetings.
Gilmore said that during the closed-door meeting he had offered to delay discussion of Hanson’s contract until a selectmen’s meeting scheduled for the following week, but Sergi refused.
The citizen’s petition asks selectmen “to make all related documents available and appoint an independent committee with access” to review the contract extension.
Gilmore described the petition as a “shock-and-awe campaign” aimed at discrediting Hanson at a time of deep financial crisis for the town, and that any thought of replacing his abilities right now is foolish.
Potts and Aubin base their antipathy on incidents in which Hanson allegedly overstepped his job description. At Sergi’s urging, a new job description was written this year.
A recent action by Hanson seems to illustrate the petitioners’ point.
Acting in his role as personnel administrator, Hanson sent the Board of Health a letter explaining he had delayed posting an opening for their long-sought health agent until a week before its expiration.
“As Personnel Director, it is my determination that enough is enough,” Hanson wrote, in waiting for a job description which, if not approved, “could bring the entire personnel system into question” and create legal liabilities. The health board had approved the job description five weeks earlier.
Labor counsel has since ruled Hanson was wrong, based on state law which exempts the independently elected health authority from local control over hiring, wage-setting and job descriptions.
Potts’ and Aubin’s issues with Hanson go back further.
Aubin’s dissatisfaction stems from the town’s purchase of the 70-plus acre former Adamovich property on Nashua Road, for which he was one of the three appraisers. The Senior Center now occupies some of that land.
He alleges six approval-not-required building lots were wiped out in the deal, generating a smaller purchase price for the Adamovich family. He alleges the bidding process somehow allowed a former selectman to buy the farmhouse on the property for the $30,000 (plus $1) minimum, as the only bidder. The former selectman eventually sold the property for $450,000.
The paper trail shows no apparent wrong-doing but that subject demands further investigation.
“(Hanson’s) personal style has become a managerial style. What he’s done for the atmosphere (in Town Hall) is a hell of a lot worse than he thinks we’ve done (with the petition),” Aubin said. “There’s a lot of personal quirks there that, out in business, you’d get fired for.”
Potts, a Sergi campaign worker who was also involved in the failed Repeal 40B petition drive, blames Hanson for allegedly not disseminating plans for the virulently opposed Bayberry Estates 40B project in a timely manner. The complex was to be located across the street from Potts’ home on Bayberry Road.
Hanson had delivered the town’s response to MassHousing on Oct. 12, 2005, within MassHousing’s required 30-day time limit, he said. Records show multiple boards had previously met several times to discuss it. Hanson’s letter was sent on behalf of selectmen as the authority recognized by Chapter 40B to do so.
“This Bayberry crowd had the notion that the town should have gone to war over the project, challenge the Department Housing and Community Development and change 40B, all because they’re mad at the system and somehow feel it’s the town’s fault,” Hanson said.
The Bayberry Estates project has been withdrawn.
Potts said three attorneys and the attorney general’s office have disagreed that Hanson is exempt from the personnel bylaw.
“They said ‘pay us and we’ll help solve your problem.’ We’re saying the town got into this fix, and before concerned citizens run off we’re going to bring it to our selectmen and say ‘you pay for (a legal opinion)’,” Potts said. “That’s what our petition is all about.”