Pownal board revamps administrator's post, assigns duties

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POWNAL — The Select Board has taken steps to reassign the duties of the town administrator's position to the administrative assistant, a newly created post called the board liaison and a part-time office staff position.

The board had earlier decided against filling the vacant town administrator's post, formerly held by Michael Walker, whom the board fired in December.

Walker was the first person hired for the new administrator's job in July 2018, following a 2016 town referendum vote in favor of creating either a town manager or administrator's position. He was fired last year amid a controversy that riled the town for more than a year.

Walker's supporters contended he had stepped into a "hornet's nest" of in-fighting among officials who undermined him in the cramped town office, while his opponents said he exhibited "aggressive, threatening, and intimidating behavior" toward elected and appointed staff members.

As with the board's approval last month of an all-terrain-vehicle ordinance, the board is again being criticized by some former officials and residents for an alleged lack of transparency and for insufficient public input before making important town decisions.

The ATV ordinance, which would take effect 60 days after the board's vote, is expected to be challenged in a petition-driven ballot vote on whether to overturn it.

About two dozen residents also have filed suit in Superior Court Civil Division alleging open meeting law violations by the board.

They had unsuccessfully lobbied the board to postpone the ordinance review until after the COVID-19 epidemic, allowing more public participation; to appoint a citizen committee to work out the details, or to put the ordinance directly before the voters in a referendum.

Position drafted

Board member Robert Jarvis, apparently took the lead in drafting a job description for the new board liaison position, which is now posted on the town website, and also met with current Administrative Assistant Linda Sciarappa to discuss a new job description and promotion with a new title of executive assistant, carrying new duties and a raise.

Critics contend that the new positions were only briefly discussed during board meetings and then, according to board meeting minutes, apparently were finalized in an executive session before being voted on shortly before 11 p.m. on July 23.

They also contend the town is losing a chance to hire an experienced and/or trained administrator by not filling the town administrator's job at an annual salary of $65,000.

"How will this work compared to a town administrator, who is qualified to supervise various departments?" former Select Board member Suzanne Caraman said this week.

"What knowledge, skills and abilities, qualifications, licenses or certifications do these two people have? Has any of these things even been discussed? If so when? These are not types of things you do in executive sessions."

Caraman, who spearheaded the effort to create an administrator's position in Pownal, both before and after her term on the board, said it is far from clear how complex duties like preparing town budgets, preparing bidding proposals, administering insurance policies; advising on hiring and personnel issues; dealing with state and federal agencies; developing and implementing capital plans, and ensuring adequate financial controls would get done under the board's proposed staffing format.

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`Up to the board'

Jarvis said the board first checked with town counsel on whether a 2016 town vote in favor of a town administrator or manager's position was advisory, rather than mandatory, and then determined that it "is up to the Select Board to determine these positions and to hire for them at their discretion."

Concerning the board liaison position, he said the "position intends to meet the needs for skilled research and writing, communication with external entities, and assistance with content related matters (grants and communication with the press included in this)."

Jarvis added, "The more administrative tasks that fell under "Town Administrator" were assigned to the new Executive Assistant position [Sciarappa]. Because of the added duties, we decided to retain part-time help to assist the Executive Assistant."

The part-time temporary post also was created by the board and now is held by Priscilla Maxon at $16 an hour.

Jarvis said that Sciarappa will now receive about $19 per hour; the liaison (expected to be Town Agent Rebecca Dragon, who has been performing many of the listed duties for the job and said she is a candidate) is to be paid $18 an hour for up to 29 hours; and the approximately half-time temporary staff assistant job is set at $16 per hour.

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He said the total for the two new posts and a raise for Sciarappa would cost the town significantly less this year than the amount in the town administrator's salary line item.

"In this way, we believe these changes meet Pownal's additional needs that the position of town administrator was originally created to address while also saving money," he said. "Not only can we meet these needs, but we can do so in a non-partisan manner."

Jarvis said the new format also is an attempt to address criticism the board received concerning the former town administrator and that position.

"We are not dismantling the work of other boards," Jarvis said. "Everyone agrees that there are needs to be met in Pownal with these positions. We are refining how those needs are met while building upon the lessons learned from our previous experience."   

Transparency issue

Concerning the lack of transparency allegation, Jarvis asserted in an email that "Pownal is in 100 percent compliance with state statute in this regard. We are receiving a massive amount of public input on a variety of issues, as you well know."

He added that the new positions were "clearly discussed in open session on July 9th. We discussed filling the position with specific individuals in executive session. Speaking about the merits and questions of specific individuals must be done in executive session per Vermont law."

While the board discussed Jarvis' efforts to draft a liaison position description and to meet with Sciarappa about the executive assistant description, the board's agenda apparently only referred to "temp help," and the matter was discussed late in the meeting.

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Select Board Chairwoman Angie Rawling this week defended the board's public comment policies during recent videoconference meetings, saying, "One of the big reasons I ran for Select Board was because of the lack of decorum in last year's meetings. The back and forth you describe is not common in other Vermont towns. Watch Bennington. You see the chair control and limit public comment in a way that allows for comment but doesn't allow the public to get into a long back and forth that prevents the board from action."

She added, "As chair, I have been following rules of the decorum. I apply these rules equally, even giving extra time in meetings if I feel it's warranted. I think it is really unfair to say the public can't comment. They can. And they have been."

Rawling did not respond to further email requests to comment on the creation of the liaison and new administrative town staff positions.

In an email, Jarvis also reiterated a contention of the residents who have generally supported the board in making the recent changes, saying that "a small group of citizens try to micromanage and manipulate the town office and the Select Board through constant emailing, expensive litigation, and manipulation of a willing press."

He added, "The [town administrator] position was discussed in much greater detail because the town was defining what tasks were needed, what tasks to assign, where the most benefit would be, etc. Now that we have those tasks defined, and a clearer picture of the risks involved, it is much easier to allocate those tasks than to create them from scratch."

`Changing the structure'

Two other former Select Board members also ripped the town office changes this week.

"I find is distressing that this Select Board is completely changing the structure of the town office without any regard to the voters," said Jenny Dewar. "While the vote for a town administrator was `advisory,' that vote showed a clear majority supported the decision."

She added, "This was four select boards ago. Ms. Caraman spent countless hours researching the position, presenting her findings, leading the board to educate and inform the town, and then they put it to a town vote. This group of five have turned over that open democratic process and decision without any input from their constituents."

"Did [the board's] recent process lack transparency? Of course it did," said former board member Marlena Pellon. "Executive session is not to be used to discuss development of a position; it is very specific what the regulations state and this does not meet the requirement to be discussed outside open meeting. The board really needs to be held to specifying the exact regulation for going into executive session."

She added "Furthermore, there appears to be absolutely no tangible evaluation and productivity tracking instituted by the board, so it is impossible to understand what the community is getting for the money one is being paid. On a day-to-day basis what is the product that is being processed; how much time are we the taxpayers getting the most bang for the buck, etc."

"It is quite obvious to me (from the current board's actions, since March 2020) that they are not approachable and they do not have the taxpayers' best interest at heart," Caraman asserted. "This board has not been transparent about a lot of things."

"It it my greatest hope that the person taking the Board Liaison position is someone who can move within both 'groups' with ease of communication, a fair and open mind, and a non-partisan outlook," Jarvis said of the newly created position.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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