Whately citizen’s petition to add second Personnel Committee put on pause

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-30-2023 2:56 PM

WHATELY — While the town will not be adding a second Personnel Committee as was proposed through a citizen’s petition, residents did approve the purchase of a new Highway Department truck and allocated Community Preservation Act (CPA) funding to Quonquont Farm at Annual Town Meeting.

The vast majority of conversation at Tuesday’s meeting at Whately Elementary School revolved around the articles pertaining to the Personnel Committee and the allocation of CPA funding.

Article 29, the final one on the warrant, was a citizen’s petition submitted by Finance Committee Chair Paul Antaya that proposed the establishment of a three-member Personnel Committee that would act in an “advisory capacity to the Selectboard.” The bylaw also contained the restriction that “all voting members appointed must not be a current employee, elected official or direct relative” of the town moderator or any member of the Selectboard or Finance Committee, according to the proposed language.

Antaya said he submitted the petition because the current Personnel Committee has proposed what he argued were large cost-of-living adjustments to the Finance Committee and several of the current members on the existing five-member Personnel Committee are town employees, which he called a conflict of interest.

“In effect, we have people voting for and proposing their own pay increase,” Antaya said. “That in and of itself is a conflict of interest and I would encourage everyone here to eliminate conflict of interest in any kind of financial dealings at the municipal level.”

Antaya said he took the proposed language from Conway’s bylaws. Conway doesn’t allow elected officials or town employees to serve on its Personnel Committee. Conway’s bylaw, however, has five sections total regarding the roles and responsibilities of its Personnel Committee, hiring and firing decisions, and submission of a written report on warrant articles involving personnel matters.

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These additional sections not being included in the Whately proposal raised concern among some residents, including Highway Superintendent Keith Bardwell, who is on vacation and had written comments read to meeting attendees by Town Clerk Amy Lavallee. The proposed bylaw also did not strike the current Personnel Committee from the town, which Bardwell said “creates duplication with no means to carry out or implement any recommendations.” Bardwell is also the town employee representative on the five-member committee.

“This article to establish a second Personnel Committee offers no guidance on the roles or responsibilities of the members,” Bardwell wrote. “This petition article is poorly written and thought-out. With no charge, it is a powerless committee. As with all things, it is always good to review and make improvements to our operations, but this article will do nothing of the such.”

Susan Baron, a member of the Personnel Committee through the moderator’s appointment, added that the town is working with a consultant to review its personnel policies. Baron motioned to table the proposal until they have a report to look at. A majority of residents agreed and the article was tabled for further discussion.

As for Quonquont Farm, the discussion revolved around the precedent of providing town funding to a private business, as the farm sought $27,350 to repair a historic ceramic silo. Resident Harlan Bean said Quonquont is a great business to have in town, but it is still a business.

“It does open a can of worms,” he said. “This would set a precedent and I don’t think it’s a good one.”

Montserrat Archbald, who is also a member of the Conservation Commission, said both the Whately Congregational Church — which received CPA funding in 2022 for historic preservation work on its windows — and Quonquont are worthy of funding because both entities are a positive force for the town.

“They benefit the whole town, just in their beauty. Quonquont is a thriving business, the kind of business we want to have in town,” Archbald said.

Prior to the funding being approved, Quonquont Farm co-owner Allison Bell noted the church doesn’t pay taxes to the town, while her business does. She added that the farm “hadn’t even considered” applying for CPA funding until the church’s funding was approved last year.

In other business, residents approved a $6.02 million operating budget for fiscal year 2024, which is an 5.04%, or approximately $290,000, increase from this fiscal year.

Voters also approved transferring $225,000 from free cash to lower the tax burden on residents and transferred $100,000 to purchase a heavy-duty Ford F-550 truck for the Highway Department.

Several bylaw fixes proposed by the Planning Board were approved, however, Articles 28 and 29, which were proposed by Debilitating Medical Condition Treatment Centers (DMCTC), were passed over because the company withdrew its request.

Before any business was conducted at the meeting, the annual town report was dedicated to Lynn Sibley, who entered semi-retirement after serving residents for 46 years through a variety of roles, ranging from firefighter/EMT, Selectboard secretary, town clerk, town administrator and treasurer/collector.

“We’re really going to miss Lynn. We’ve been so lucky to have her all these years,” said Selectboard Chair Joyce Palmer-Fortune. “She is universally said to be someone who makes you feel heard, and that’s really important.”

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