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Southampton town administrator search questioned; Police chief resigns from search committee due to 'bias and prejudice it has engaged in'

SOUTHAMPTON — The Select Board this week sought legal advice on the makeup of a town administrator screening committee after two town officials questioned how its members were selected. The board also will have to reconsider decisions made at its Aug. 29 meeting because members voted on items that were not posted on the agenda.

Select Board member Michael L. Phelan Jr. said Thursday that votes to allow a screening committee to restart a search for a town administrator and to require that applicants have a bachelor’s degree were invalid because the topic was not on the agenda. A resident brought the violation of the Open Meeting Law to the board’s attention at its meeting Tuesday.

The top choice from the first seven-month search, Michael A. Szlosek of Ludlow, turned down the job in August.

Phelan suggested Tuesday that the board should seek a legal opinion on the way it appointed members to the search committee. The move followed comments from interim Town Administrator Regina Shea-Sullivan about the board’s hand-picking the screening committee members and an email Monday from Police Chief David G. Silvernail saying that he would no longer serve on the committee after witnessing “the bias and prejudice it has engaged in.”

Phelan said that town counsel affirmed Wednesday that the board did not violate the law when it appointed five members March 5. On that date, Select Board members Edward J. Cauley and Jacqueline M. Sears asked to be on the committee, then each chose another town official to join. Cauley chose Finance Committee Chairman John O. Martin, Sears chose Treasurer Donna C. Whiteley and the rest of the board chose Silvernail as the fifth member.

In Martin’s case, the town’s bylaws state that a member of the Finance Committee shall not hold “other elective or appropriate office,” but Martin said it is legal for Finance Committee members to sit on other boards or committees if they are serving as representatives of the Finance Committee.

Shea-Sullivan, who had applied for the position but was not a finalist, asked Tuesday why the town didn’t seek residents to be on the committee, as it did with the fire chief screening committee. “We’re looking for consistency,” she said.

In his email, Silvernail also urged the board to seek qualified committee members from the public. “Please do the right thing and put this leftover committee out of its misery,” he wrote.

“On three separate occasions during this process, I had contemplated resigning from this committee because of the way it was being operated,” he said.

Silvernail called the committee a “club,” and said Cauley tried to pick the committee members himself to control the process. He also said Martin met privately with the finalists before the committee interviewed them.

Martin said that as chairman, he called all the candidates chosen for interviews and answered any questions they had. He met with one candidate, already a semifinalist, who had a lot of questions and wanted to see the town before agreeing to an interview.

He disputed the claim that the board was biased, saying that the committee was always looking for the best candidate.

“Different people had different opinions about who that was,” he said. “Maybe they wanted someone, but it didn’t matter because we discussed it and majority ruled.”

Cauley said he was insulted to hear that some thought it was “a club we established and people are prejudiced ... That’s dead wrong.”

Select Board member Elizabeth A. Moulton, who joined the board after the committee was selected, said that even if the process was legal, perhaps it wasn’t the best practice.

“I sat in the audience while that happened and I think the way the fire chief screening committee was selected was much better,” she said.

Since the vote Aug. 29 to reconstitute the town administrator screening committee was invalid, the board will consider the issue at its next meeting Sept. 24, Phelan said. If the board does reinstate the same committee, it will still need two new members because Silvernail and Sears have opted not to serve again.

Cauley called the delay “just another roadblock” in the 2½-year search for a new town administrator. The last person in the position, Diana Schindler, left to take another job in July 2011.

In other news, David A. McDougall resigned Tuesday as Select Board chairman, saying he was too busy for the responsibilities. He remains as a member.

The board will discuss reorganizing at its next meeting.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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