New Haven road crew restructure raises eyebrows
NEW HAVEN — At a hastily called meeting late last month, the New Haven selectboard voted to restructure its highway department and terminated the positions of road foreman and highway assistant, effective immediately.
The quick action has left a key town department understaffed during the busy summer construction season and with no clear route for public input into the department restructuring. At the same time, some question whether the board acted legally by holding much of that July 27 meeting in secret session.
Selectman John Roleau, who has been road commissioner since March, described the restructuring as necessary to achieve better leadership, communication and efficiency, especially in terms of streamlining duties to eliminate overlap.
“Basically the chain of command and the how things were getting operated were too cloudy as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians. People didn’t really know who was in charge. There was a lot of confusion.”
The vote at the July 27 special meeting carried 4-1, with Roleau and fellow selectboard members Steve Dupoise, Doug Tolles and Jim Walsh voting for the changes and selectboard Chair Kathy Barrett voting against. As a result, road foreman Jeff Terry and Highway Assistant Katie Reilley lost their jobs.
The New Haven Highway Department has seen disruption in leadership the past year and a half since the retirement of long-time highway commissioner Roger Boise. For years, Boise essentially headed the department, putting in long hours, mostly volunteer, at what was defined as a six-hours-a-week position.
Terry joined the department as fulltime road foreman just months before Boise stepped down in March 2015. After Boise’s departure, the road commissioner position remained vacant until Roleau applied for and was appointed as road commissioner this past March. Roleau has been assisted by Dan Morse, who has worked on a volunteer basis.
“Roger went above and beyond his job position to put in the hours needed,” said Roleau. “He checked the roads every morning. He drove around. He met with the road crew two or three times a day several days a week. He was great. And if you needed Roger, you went to the office because he was usually in there.”
Roleau asserts that when Boise left, communication broke down and duties got muddled.
He told the Independent that the restructuring is intended to reallocate the often overlapping duties of the road commissioner, road foreman and office assistant in a way that keeps the position of road commissioner and creates a new fulltime position, with an as-yet-to-be-determined new job title.
Roleau also described New Haven’s road upkeep expenses as among the most expensive in the county — $23,727 per mile in New Haven, using a road budget of $1,169,249 and tallying 48.9 miles of town-maintained road (one way). By comparison, Roleau said that road expenses in Charlotte (which he offered as a local though not Addison County example) are $15,598 per mile.
A subcommittee, comprised of Roleau, Morse, Selectman Dupoise and town Treasurer Barbara Torian has been tasked with working out the details of the highway department restructuring, including a job description for the new fulltime position.
The sudden termination came as a complete surprise to the two highway department employees, neither of whom was informed about the meeting beforehand.
Thursday morning, July 28, Reilley arrived at work and was informed that she no longer had a job.
“When I came to work Steve Dupoise and John Roleau were there to talk with me and told me what had happened,” Reilley said. “I was quite surprised. For my position in particular, it was out of left field.”
Terry tells the same story.
“They showed up first thing in the morning and said here’s your severance pay and have a nice life,” he said.
Roleau asserts that it was important to the decision-making process that Reilley and Terry were not part of the meeting about highway department restructuring.
“The point of the meeting was to get fair and unbiased opinions and decisions about eliminating two positions,” he said. “I personally don’t think we would have met that criteria had they been invited to attend.”
Reilley had served as the part-time Highway Assistant since 2006, working 15-20 hours a week at $20/hour. Her primary duties included applying for highway improvement grants and processing grant reimbursements, tracking highway expenditures, processing road access permit applications, preparing and processing paving bids, and processing VTrans and other state-related invoices, payments and other paperwork.
“Over the last 10 years, I’ve been responsible for more than $1 million in grants,” said Reilley. “And that seems pretty significant to me. But I’m not the kind of person to flash that in anyone’s face. I just did my work.”
Reilley doesn’t buy the proposition that road spending is too high in New Haven.
“The budget’s never been voted down for the highway department, so as far as too much spending is concerned that seems a little undocumented, let’s put it that way,” she said. “But they were doing what they thought needed to be done. Whether or not that turns out to be the case remains to be seen.”
Both Reilley and Terry were offered severance of $1,600.
Asked about the sudden nature of the employees’ termination, Roleau responded, “I’m a businessman, and I see things that are necessary and unfortunately you have to make tough decisions when you’re put in a leadership position.”
OPEN MEETING LAW
Questions remain about the executive session at the July 27 meeting, whether or not the newly appointed subcommittee needs to comply with Open Meeting Law, and how the town will be affected by the sudden loss of two employees.
The July 27 special selectboard meeting was conducted almost entirely in executive session. All substantive discussion of how and why the department should be restructured took place in the hour and seven minutes of executive session and is thus off limits to interested parties.
“The meeting was held in private so there’s a lot of angry townspeople that didn’t get to voice their opinion on this,” Terry said.
Barrett and Dupoise voted against the use of executive session for the restructuring discussion.
According to the minutes, Roleau moved to go into executive session “to discuss client-attorney privilege-related documents.” When this was not seconded, Tolles argued that “documents relating to restructuring the highway department should be kept confidential as they are protected by attorney-client privilege so should be in executive session. Selectman Jim Walsh seconded that motion.”
The minutes show that Barrett then argued that while it would be appropriate to discuss personnel in executive session, “she didn’t feel they could discuss restructuring the department. Selectboard member Steve Dupoise agreed with Barrett.”
But the motion carried 3-2, with Roleau, Tolles and Walsh voting yes.
While Open Meeting law includes “confidential attorney-client communications” as an admissible reason to go into executive session, the law also states that discussion of confidential documents does not itself “permit an extension of the executive session to the general subject to which the (document) pertains.”
Those wanting to follow the restructuring discussion by attending future subcommittee meetings might also find themselves thwarted. Asked when the subcommittee would next meet and how interested parties would be notified, Roleau said that a meeting date was not set and subcommittee meetings didn’t need to be warned.
Jenny Prosser, counsel and municipal affairs specialist for the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office, said that in general selectboard subcommittees must comply with Open Meeting Law.
“Given a situation where a board is creating a committee and they’re giving their own authority to the committee then, yeah, that committee is of the public body and must comply with all the open meeting law requirements,” including notifying the public and taking minutes,” she said.
Barrett said she is most immediately concerned about the paperwork piling up from ongoing projects like the multi-million-dollar Nash Bridge replacement.
“We have to check all the numbers that come through on that because we have to pay our portion,” said Barrett, noting that the town’s share will be in the $200,000-$300,00 range.
Responding to this concern at the July 27 meeting, Roleau said he hoped “the rest of the office staff will pitch in and help.”
But Barrett is not sure that plan is feasible — even laying aside the question of how current office staff would absorb the 15-20 hours a week Reilley devoted to highway duties. And among her main concerns are the lack of fiscal oversight that results from Reilley’s vacant chair.
“There are some things that would not be burdensome to the other office staff,” Barrett said. “But there are also some things that should not be given to the other office staff because we’re going to have a problem with an audit simply because … you’re going to be asking one person to both collect the money and write the check.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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