TOWNSEND — The Board of Selectmen voted to remove Karen Hill from the town’s Conservation Commission Tuesday night.
On June 30, the Board agreed to let Hill continue serving on the commission for 30 days. Both sides had hoped to find a collaborative resolution, but tensions between Hill and the board appeared to reach a tipping point on June 8 when Hill wrote a letter to the selectmen effectively halting the conservation commission’s meetings over two unfilled, paid positions.
Selectmen Chaz Sexton-Diranian and Joe Shank both voted to remove Hill without reappointment. Veronica Kell recused herself during the hearing Tuesday and on June 30.
In the eyes of Townsend’s Board of Selectmen, Hill hadn’t upheld her end of the agreement.
During Tuesday’s public comment period, representatives from Townsend Community Access Media presented the selectmen with a complaint against the Conservation Commission for violating the state’s Open Meeting Law.
When the Conservation Commission met July 28, a 4-3 vote was taken by the commission telling TCAM’s Hartley Pleshaw to stop recording the meeting. At the time, Hill was the commission’s presiding officer and voted in favor of having Pleshaw stop the recording.
Pleshaw was recording the open session meeting for broadcast on local television and on the town’s YouTube channel.
Conservation Commissioner Joan Savoy had defended TCAM’s rights under the Open Meeting Law, stating they function no differently than any other members of the press. However, Pleshaw stopped recording following the vote as a courtesy, allowing the commission to proceed with its business.
Hill subsequently stepped down as chair of the Conservation Commission but had stayed on as a commissioner. Although she was no longer chair, she had hoped to stay on the commission.
Shank conceded not all of the town’s public meetings had been broadcast in the past, something he believes was an oversight.
“You’re right. They haven’t been done and they haven’t been done properly. There has been no transparency in this community for a lot of years,” Shank said. “Myself, I spoke many times in public meetings. We need to fix the wrongs. This is how we start. But by stopping and being deliberately against it. It doesn’t work for me.”
TCAM said as it grows its staff, providing more coverage of municipal meetings and community events is part of its plans. TCAM also said a memo had been sent to town bodies in May outlining how they would handle the recording of meetings, especially given complications posed by Zoom meetings.
Former Conservation Commissioner Jennifer Petit said audio recordings of their meetings had been available previously through the town clerk and added “this is not really anything new.”
The Board of Selectmen also noted two commissioners who felt intimidated by Hill’s approach. Hill allegedly would sometimes come to the homes of commissioners seeking signatures on decisions, including on a 35-foot wetlands buffer zone waiver for Wescon Inc. that had been denied.
Hill said without paid help including an administrative assistant and conservation agent, this has been the standard procedure for the past four months. Commissioner Jennifer Eaton said Hill told her to “be prepared for a lawsuit” in reference to the denial.
Hill said it wasn’t intended to be intimidating, rather a comment from personal experience.
“I went to her house to get the signatures that were needed for the denial. And she happily signed away. And I told her be prepared for a lawsuit,” Hill said. “Because someday, two or three months down the road, it’s gonna be summertime, you’re going to be out in your yard, goofing around, and someone’s gonna show up and say, ‘hey, are you well, so and so? … It was just an informative thing. This will happen.”
Sexton-Diranian also expressed his discontent with how Hill allegedly handled key access to the Land Use office. He said town employees were not comfortable with a volunteer having a key to the office.
According to Sexton-Diranian, Hill had sought key access from facilities and the following morning the office was found unlocked, accessible to the public. He said she told him she would not return the key until there was paid help for the commission.
Hill said she needed access to the office to be able to perform her duties and had been given a key in February while looking for a replacement. The original key she was issued is “missing” and likely somewhere in town hall.
Richard Nylen, the attorney representing Hill, said the key issue may be his fault. He understood the key was used to retrieve mail and documents. Because Hill works a full-time job, completing her functions during normal town hall hours can be challenging.
Nylen also said in the past, codes had been changed on the phone and Hill was unable to get messages left for the commission. There had also been commission mail that was missing when she arrived.
While Nylen felt the response of his client was “courteous” given the circumstances, it underscored for Sexton-Diranian why the selectmen had given Hill 30 days.
“What we said was we wanted to be open with communication. We wanted to be able to follow the rules and regulations of what we’re doing. And this is one small example of how she’s not following what we were asking her to do,” Sexton-Diranian said.
Sexton-Diranian said he had not heard from Hill in the last 30 days, reiterating his sentiment from the July 28 meeting that he wanted to help.
“We have to be collaborative and I said that before. That’s all I’m asking. And none of that has been shown to me in the last 30 days. That’s where my decision is made,” Sexton-Diranian said.
To mitigate the lack of paid help, Commissioner Jennifer Eaton said she had written to the Board of Selectmen and Hill offering help.
As the meeting wore on, rehashing many of the same issues, longtime Commissioner James Deroian expressed his frustration with the situation, threatening to resign from the commission altogether.
“Karen, do you really want to stay on as a commissioner drawing this attention? Because that’s the only thing that’s going to keep coming from it. You can have my resignation. This is ridiculous. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in this town,” Deroian said.
Two conservation commissioners then spoke in support of Hill.
“She is the best, the most qualified, the most educated person there is on the Conservation Commission. If you replace her or remove her from the commission, you are doing the residents of the town of Townsend a major disservice because nobody, not one Commissioner, is going to put into it what Miss Hill has put into it for all these years,” Anne Le’Cuyer said.
“Karen Hill is an extremely intelligent and professional woman that did her absolute best to help the Conservation Commission. I will stand by her all the way to the grid and I really think the selectmen should consider the good she’d done prior to the incident in the past four months,” Jim Le’Cuyer said.
The endorsements did not change the minds of the selectmen.
Nylen said they “would comply” with the board’s decision, but left it open to pursuing the matter further.