TOWNSEND — With her role as Conservation Commission chairman hanging in the balance, Karen Hill appeared before the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday, June 30.
On June 8, Hill sent a letter to the Board of Selectmen effectively halting the Conservation Commission meetings. The move came after four months of difficulty in trying to fill the commission’s agent and administrative assistant openings.
For Board of Selectmen members Chaz Sexton-Diranian and Joe Shank, the letter appeared to be the tipping point that prompted their decision to proceed with trying to remove her from the commission.
“I’ve been on other boards where I’ve had to take on extra duties and kind of pinch-hit for the administrative side of things,” Sexton-Diranian said. “But I would never approach the executive board of a town to say that my board or my committee is not going to do any work unless we get help. That’s not the mission of the town, we’re trying to help people not hurt people.”
Shank echoed his concerns, sharing a sentiment he had shared in previous Board of Selectmen meetings when the topic had arisen.
“I think we have a commission and I’ve said it all along they all try to do their best. But, most important is the job has to get done,” Shank said. “We cannot hold the town hostage and that’s one of the reasons why I’m sitting here today — to figure out how we’re going to solve this problem.”
Hill and her lawyer Richard Nylen said that despite the letter, she had continued to sign off on Conservation Commission paperwork and would have held meetings required by statute and law.
In response to a question from Shank later in the meeting, Conservation Commissioner Anne Le Cuyer stated members of the commission encouraged Hill to send the letter.
However, Commissioner Jennifer Eaton said not all members were present at the meeting where it was discussed. Newly appointed Commissioner Joan Savoy echoed her sentiment.
Additionally, Shank added that he had heard from the Board of Health about paperwork getting backed up and stated that he had received phone calls from an attorney who was trying to close on a piece of property. He said the attorney was having trouble locating certain conservation restrictions.
Nylen asserted it was never a matter of his client not wanting to do the work. Rather, she lacked the necessary supports to do the job effectively. He also posed whether the difficulty in filling the two commission’s two openings could be retaliatory in nature.
Shank didn’t agree with that sentiment. He mentioned the two had worked effectively together before.
“I take it personally that you say the board is against her completely,” Shank said.
Board of Selectmen Chair Veronica Kell recused herself at the start of the meeting and could not address specific concerns Nylen raised about her.
Nylen also asserted Hill had been performing the work of the commission’s paid employees for about four months. The only exception being a short window of approximately 2 weeks, where there was an administrative assistant. Hiring people were not her responsibility Nylen said, adding the issue may have been resolved sooner had she been able to.
“I’ll put her on as a witness — she works anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week for nothing filling out paperwork because this board has not authorized or hired somebody for her commission. That’s not on her, it’s very clear in your charter and the rules and regulations that its the town administrator and the selectmen that take care of those,” Nylen said.
Additionally, Nylen pointed towards a letter the Board of Selectmen received from the Massachusetts Association of Conservation Commissions in response to an inquiry about how to handle the situation.
He argued the association clearly indicated the town should provide Hill’s commission paid help.
“What else was she supposed to do? She obviously was not and is not going to get any help from this board. There’s no indication that you have ever provided that you’re going to help the Conservation Commission.”
“I’ve made it very clear to Karen, I’ve had many conversations with her, I’m absolutely willing to do whatever we can do to try to help her,” Shank said. “But I can’t go out on Main Street, grab the next person out of the next car coming by, and say ‘come, please fill out a job application, we want to hire you.’”
Shank also stated that he had many conversations with the former Conservation Agent Dave Henkels and former Town Administrator James Kreidler about the subject.
In response to Nylen’s arguments about the town not hiring paid help for four months, Sexton-Diranian highlighted it was the town administrator who oversaw hiring for three of those months. He went on to clarify that the Board of Selectmen has not hired their own paid help during that time.
However, as Nylen and Hill continued to drive home just how much work she had been doing the past four months, it appeared both selectmen began to understand her perspective.
“I understand where you’re coming from. I understand the whole situation. But, bottom line is this: we’re all operating under the same feeling and emotion that you are right now. For myself, I have a 40 hour a week job and its 45 to 50 hours to do that sometimes. It’s very emotional for me,” Sexton-Diranian said. “I come in here and I’ve been putting in over 50 hours a week being a selectmen. Am I complaining? I’m not complaining but it’s a lot of work and I understand that. I completely empathize with where you’re at. I will be willing to do anything that you need me to do as long as you come to me.”
Sexton-Diranian, who said making Townsend more collaborative is a longstanding goal of his, also recalled the words of an old boss.
“I worked in the prison for a long time and what the captain of the prison used to say to me all the time is ‘there’s two types of people we have. We have people who are on board and we have people who are overboard. Which one are you?’ If you want to be on board, let’s go for it,” he said.
Nylen responded “Karen’s been on board and she’s been looking for somebody to help her stay on board.”
While Shank maintained there was a better way for Hill to express herself, he agreed they needed to move forward.
Nylen agreed it could have been handled better but the better way of handling it was how Hill had approached things for the past four months.
“I don’t want to look backwards, we’re not going to get anywhere looking in a rearview mirror everyday. We’ve got to look forwards. The only way we’re going to move forward is as a team,” Shank said.