Without a town administrator, Townsend selectmen pinch hit for now

Veronica Kell, the newest member of the Townsend Board of Selectmen
Veronica Kell, the newest member of the Townsend Board of Selectmen

TOWNSEND – With the Board of Selectmen having parted ways with Town Administrator James Kreidler late last month, selectmen will handle daily management duties for now, Chairman Veronica Kell said during Friday’s meeting, held via Zoom.

Aimed at dealing with day-to-day business the town administrator typically handles, the noontime work sessions — all public and subject to the Open Meeting Law — will likely continue until an interim administrator is hired.

According to the town website, the board recently reached a separation deal with Kreidler that retains “certain… benefits” under his existing contract, which expires in June 2022. He was first hired as an interim administrator in December 2015 and accepted the permanent position six months later.

There has been no word, publicly, about the reasons for Kreidler’s untimely departure, but there had been some apparent friction between him and the chairman of the board he worked for.

At a board meeting last month, for example, Kreidler and Kell sparred over the salary increase embedded in his contract, which he had said could be deferred for the time being. She disagreed. In a brief but tense exchange that followed, the former administrator said he meant to have his say, citing the town charter, which gave him the right to speak, if not to vote.

Kell, for her part, said her reason for bringing the matter up was to make people aware of the language in Kreidler’s contract and its potential impact on the town budget.

Convening Friday’s noontime meeting, Kell said that the public comment period would be omitted from future working sessions and that she had requested that people who wanted to take something up with the board this time send an email in advance, “by the close of business yesterday.” Only one was received, she said, from Town Clerk Kathy Spofford, who did not attend the meeting.

Among other matters, the board discussed bridging gaps left by Kreidler’s departure — staff and department head meetings, for example. And he was listed as “contract manager” for the CDBG housing grant, which Kell said needs an extension so the funds can be expended. “As Jim’s successor,” the board can step in until an interim administrator takes over, she said. Her colleagues agreed, voting to authorize the chair to sign the necessary documents.

Basically the same dilemma applies to procurement, with a grant-funded project out for bids that were due in on Tuesday, to be opened Friday. “How do we handle this as a board?” Kell asked. The board voted to allow her to take over the job, if the temporary setup passes muster with the state Department of Revenue. Kell said she had planned to talk to the DOR on Monday about it.

In other business, the board discussed an event tent that the Council on Aging director wants to put at the Senior Center for outdoor programs. It didn’t go up last year, but sustained damage the year before, when a wind storm blew it over, bending the poles. It’s been repaired, but the incident points to the issue of the town’s liability for property damage or personal injury if the tent takes off again.

Vice Chairman Joseph Shank said a town maintenance worker had approached him about it. Asked to help set up the tent, the man was concerned, Shank said.

Shank contacted town counsel, who said that town employees should not erect the tent. It’s unclear who owns it and what the town’s responsibility would be, he said.

According to COA Director Karin Moore, the Friends of the Council on Aging bought the tent to use for summer programs at the Senior Center. In a recent letter to the board, Moore said town departments helped set it up last time.

“It seems clear… if we don’t have coverage, as a town, we should not put it up,” Kell said. Which doesn’t mean someone at the Senior Center — say a volunteer, not a town employee — can’t do it. The board concluded that the matter needed more discussion and would be taken up again.

Finally, the board talked about where things stand in terms of Zoom meetings versus in-person meetings at Town Hall in the future. As of June 15, state restrictions that suspended OML provisions to allow all-remote sessions will be lifted and public meetings must be held in person again.

The wrinkle is that meetings must be posted ahead of time, in some cases, a public hearing, for example, with newspaper notices a couple weeks in advance.

With the issue on the Tuesday’s agenda, the board agreed to seek guidance from town counsel. Kell recommended that until they can iron the matter out, boards and committees hold off on posting meetings scheduled after June 15. Citing the attorney’s preliminary take on the issue, she said it may be that any of those meetings citing “Zoom” as the sole platform might have to be rescheduled.