SHIRLEY — James Thibault’s account of what happened when he retired as wiring inspector with expectations to keep the job town officials instead gave to his former assistant could be a cautionary tale or a story about the end of a small-town era.
Thibault was a newcomer when he built a house in town in 1975. At 20, he was doing well professionally, he said. Norman Albert and “Hack” Noyes were selectmen then and Ray Gagnon was the wiring inspector.
When Gagnon went into business for himself a few years later, he reached out to Thibault, a fellow electrician. Was he interested in the job?
Thibault accepted the part-time position in 1979.
“I asked to have Ray assist me,” Thibault recalled in a recent interview at Lambert’s True Value Hardware Store in the village, which he has owned and operated since 1983.
The two worked together until Gagnon retired four years ago, Thibault said. Then, he looked for an assistant, or alternate wiring inspector. “I reached out to Mark” Prokowiew, with the selectmen’s blessing. “There was no issue,” he said.
Nor have there been problems with selectmen since and only one formal complaint during his 35-year tenure, Thibault said.
Citing a protocol he initiated and selectmen endorsed that requires a licensed electrician to do wiring in homes or businesses, he said a resident renovating his home objected to the rule and complained to the board because he wanted to do it himself.
Now, Thibault is raising an issue, if only to have his say.
When he retired as wiring inspector this year and Prokowiew got the job, Thibault considered it a personal affront. In his view, the appointment process smacked of back-room politics and maybe some simmering grudges, he said.
Thibault served on the Zoning Board of Appeals for 36 years, from 1978 to 2014.
ZBA decisions can ruffle feathers and some might still rankle. If so, it might help explain why, with a combined total of 106 years’ service, the board received no official recognition from the town when he and two other veteran members resigned recently, he posited. New members followed suit.
Thibault said the mass exodus was not a protest. “We were not angry,” he said. “It was just time.”
Rather than continue with no veteran members on board, newcomers decided to step down too, he said.
A new ZBA has since been appointed. But an attorney was hired for a hearing held in the interim, Thibault said. He offered to rescind his resignation temporarily so he could oversee the hearing at no cost to the town, he said, but he got no response to his offer.
The perceived snub was one of several paths Thibault took to make his point.
From the way interviews were conducted to key players who he said shifted sides, he had a sense that “something didn’t seem right,” he said.
To begin with, he told Town Administrator Patrice Garvin that his retirement at age 62 did not signal his intent to leave the job he’d been doing for 35 years, Thibault said.
So what sparked the move? Thibault acknowledged that health insurance was part of it.
Among other cost-saving changes, wiring inspector and gas and plumbing inspector positions were dropped from town insurance rolls this year, as were on-call firefighters.
Although previously included in the plan, for which the town paid 25 percent of the premium, those positions fell below the benefit benchmark of 20 hours per week.
Retirees, however, get a 50/50 split, plus the pensions they qualify for, if any.
Thibault opted to retire, with a pension and insurance benefits.
But he hoped to stay on as wiring inspector and in fact had counted on it.
“It’s not about the money,” he said. “I like the work.”
Once paid by the job, compensation later switched to a flat fee of $10,000 per year for each inspector, Thibault said.
But he did not object when Garvin indicated it would be an hourly job now; or when selectmen asked him to keep a log some time ago, he said. He turned the log in to the previous town administrator and kept a copy. Nothing came of that exercise, he said.
Now he could make a case for 20 hours, on average, he said, but he let that go. Anyway, the job entails more than some might think, he said, including meetings with contractors, numerous phone calls and sometimes more than one trip to a work site for a re-check. Plus keeping up with current rules and regulations.
He conducted most inspection business from his hardware store, where he can be found just about every weekday during business hours. Contractors appreciated that, he said.
So did David Swain, who cited Thibault’s in-town availability when Prokowiew’s appointment came up.
All things considered, Thibault figured he’d be re-appointed, he said. Having cleared it with the Middlesex County Retirement Board, he didn’t envision any problems.
But Garvin, citing town policy, declared the position vacant after he retired and said it must be duly posted and advertised.
There were three candidates, including Prokowiew and Thibault.
Thibault said he didn’t know the Lunenburg applicant but he knows his former alternate’s qualifications. Comparing his own resume, with a long list of references that includes town officials, department heads and others, Thibault said he’s the most qualified.
Besides, he said, his business is unrelated to the inspector’s job, with no conflict of interest.
Prokowiew, an electrical contractor who lives in town, previously told him he didn’t want the job and would not apply, said Thibault, who suspects someone talked him into it.
Noting another apparent change of heart, he said Selectman Bob Prescott promised to back his re-bid, Thibault said. But when it came to a vote, Prescott formed a majority to appoint Prokowiew. Selectman David Swain voted no.
As for the Search Committee whose two-to-one vote selectmen endorsed in a separate two-to-one vote, Thibault felt they went in with their minds already made up.
Questions during his interview, in particular, made him feel that way, he said, noting a confrontational attitude and comments from one member, who discounted his longevity.
Thibault also said last-minute changes in the interview lineup seemed “fishy” to him.
The Search Committee consisted of Garvin, William Badenhoff, who previously served on the Town Administrator Search Committee, and Building Inspector Donald Farrar, who was on vacation but voted for Thibault by phone.
Before the interviews, Garvin asked him to meet with her, Thibault said. They chose a neutral setting for the informal sit-down and had a frank conversation, he said.
They managed to dispel a rumor that he was planning a retaliatory coup by attempting to zero out her salary at Town Meeting, Thibault said, but Garvin had other concerns, too.
For example, if he were re-hired as wiring inspector, she wanted to know if they could work together, he said, noting that new ground rules now route all town business through her office, including inspection-related work he’d done from his store before.
Thibault said he would follow the rules, always has, noting that he had worked well with the building inspector, fire and police chiefs in the past.
But when all was said and done, Thibault suspected the new appointment hinged on a private connection rather than professional references or past performance, he said.
Before the board voted to appoint Prokowiew, Selectman Kendra Dumont disclosed that he and her husband were friends. But he was only an acquaintance of hers and she felt “justified” in voting, she said.
Thibault viewed it differently. “I felt the process was unfair,” he concluded. “I’m still the best qualified…for the job.”
The Other Side
Contacted for comment, Garvin said there was nothing untoward about Prokowiew’s appointment. “It was a process,” she said, tracing its steps.
“He (Thibault) retired. That created a vacancy,” she said. Per town policy, the position was posted and advertised.
Aiming for a “transparent” and “unbiased” selection process, she assembled a three-member group to screen applications and conduct interviews, Garvin continued.
Besides Farrar, she reached out to a resident with no ties to town politics, Bill Badenhoff, as the third member. He served on the town administrator’s search committee, she said.
Asked about the interview scenario, she said there’s no set standard about whether candidates come in together or individually. Dates and times were all about scheduling. “We tried to do it all in one day,” she said. But it didn’t work out that way.
When it came to a vote, “Butch (Farrar) called in his vote,” she said. “It was two-to-one” for Prokowiew. Farrar voted for Thibault.
Citing “the general consensus,” she said it was all about process, which was equal for all.
The outcome, she concluded, was fair, consistent and as transparent as she could make it.
“Jim has held the job for more than 30 years and he will get a pension. Mark was the alternate and it was time for him to get a shot,” she said. “That says it all.”
“It’s not personal,” she said. “He (Thibault) retired and the town moves on.”
Dumont put it more bluntly. “I don’t like double-dipping,” she said.
Dumont further stated that selectmen who voted to appoint Prokowiew were right to trust the committee’s recommendation. “That’s what we appointed them to do,” she said.
Prescott, who Thibault said acted contrary to earlier promises of support, said his vote was based on the recommendation, not his own preference, and there was nothing personal in his decision. “I did support him … as wiring inspector,” Prescott said.
But once Thibault retired, the hiring process kicked in, by policy, and when it came to the appointment, he weighted discussion at the table before voting. “I listened,” he said.
“We had a process” and he followed it, Prescott said.