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Cheshire Selectmen Fill Highway Position Despite Speed Bumps

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Staff
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Highway Superintendent Bob Navin, right, addresses the board regarding possible new hire Corey Swistak, left.
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen was taking no chances on a hiring decision Tuesday after Open Meeting complaint was filed over the process in bringing the new highway superintendent on board. 
 
The board engaged in an hour of discussion when resident Gary Trudeau raised the possibility that the members might have inadvertently violated the state law again when interviewing candidates for the operator position. 
 
Highway Superintendent Bob Navin interviewed the candidates along with Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV and the board's liaison to the Highway Department, Selectman Ron DeAngelis.
 
"I have nothing against this person but the laws were violated. The board didn't officially appoint a subcommittee to go through the job applications," Trudeau said after calling a point of order and asking them to stop the appointment. "I recommend you put [the hiring] on hold until you can start the process over and go through it with a committee."
 
Selectwoman Michelle Francesconi voiced frustration over possibly being in this spot again and was disappointed in communication among the board members.
 
"I'm just extremely disappointed that we ended up in this situation. When I did try to stop the interviews last week, I came to the conclusion after speaking with town counsel and our town administrator that there was some doubt in my mind that that process should be taking place," she said.
 
Francesconi did try to stop the interviews but wasn't sure it met the burden of an Open Meeting Law violation.
 
"I think the people who did the interviews are competent and I trust their judgement. Under any other circumstances, I would be absolutely unequivocally appointing tonight. The process did not happen according to what our expectations were but I don't know if that, in and of itself, constitutes and Open Meeting Law violation."
 
St. John said he spoke to the town counsel about the process before they started the interviews.
 
"This is a process that's employed in [a lot of communities]. You have a department head and a town administrator take part in the interviews for employee positions like this. There was not a quorum of the Board of Selectmen there so I don't know what the Open Meeting Law problem would be as far as that goes," he said. 
 
The board discussed appointing an official hiring subcommittee and starting the process over to make sure they were in compliance. 
 
Navin raised several objections to this idea.
 
"I've plowed snow on Halloween before. The way you're talking, if we have to start from scratch, it's a week to announce for interviews, it's a week after that for setting them up, it's at least two weeks for the person to give their notice," he said. "Best case scenario I'm looking at four-five weeks minimum to get a man in here. We're short-handed already, we're inexperienced down at the department. I have only two employees who have plowed in town. Keep delaying this and the town roads are not going to be safe — period. I can't be held accountable if I can't do my job."
 
The board members discussed streamlining the process should they decide to redo the interviews. Possibly holding several meetings over the next two weeks to appoint a subcommittee and reinterview candidates was broached, but availability was an issue for St. John and perhaps town counsel as well.
 
St. John stressed to the board that although a resident had brought up the possibility that they might be in violation, he and town counsel believe otherwise.
 
"I don't think there was anything intentional about any of this. In fact, town counsel did iterate that this is not a violation of the Open Meeting Law. I'd love to have a conversation with the Attorney General's Office. I do not understand in any way how this violates the Open Meeting Law," he said. "I certainly understand, as Michelle said, there are internal procedures that we want to solidify, that's one thing, but as far as a violation of the Open Meeting Law I just don't agree."
 
Ultimately Francesconi agreed.
 
"I can't see it either. Nothing in this whole process made me believe we were in violation of Open Meeting Law. There are many other communities where a similar hiring process takes place," she said. "It was just going against the expectations of other board members."
 
Finally, Francesconi made the motion to appoint Corey Swistak to the position and was seconded by Selectman Jason Levesque. Levesque read through the basis for the last complaint and it was deemed none of them were met this time. The board passed the motion unanimously.
 
The town also hired Robert Hungate as a part-time officer for the Police Department. The position will not add any money to the budget but gives the police chief another option for a vacation, injury, or other down-time fill in.
 
St. John said the town will have to find alternatives for heating repair at the former school building. The town took $60,000 from the stabilization fund to repair faulty pipes in about a third of the building. But the estimate for the work has come in higher.
 
"The one response we got was $99,500. This led us to rethink our options. One option involves using propane and the other involves electric," St. John said. "This was intended to be a Band-Aid fix, but $99,500 was way more than a Band-Aid."
 
Francesconi thinks the town meeting was under a different impression when it approved the original $60,000.
 
"I believe it was the belief of the voters that this $60,000 was a repair or replacement of a third of the heating system. Most people have mentioned to me that they didn't take it as a Band-Aid," she said. "Even when I voted on it, that's what my take on it was."
 
St. John is going to continue to explore options to heat the affected portion of the building temporarily until it might qualify for Green Communities grant money. The town is going through that process now.
 
The winter parking rules go into effect on Friday, Nov. 1. There will be no parking from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on town roads. This will last until April 1.
 
There was a brief discussion of moving trick-or-treat to Friday because of the expected inclement weather for the regularly scheduled Thursday time. While the board initially rejected moving it, on Wednesday the date was shifted to Saturday, 5:30 to 7, along with a number of other communities. 
 
The next Cheshire Selectmen's meeting will be Tuesday, Nov. 5,  at 6:30 p.m.
 

Tags: DPW,   open meeting complaint,   

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Cheshire Still Seeking Right Fiscal Equation For Elementary School

By Jeff SnoonianiBerkshires Correspondent

The Selectmen have hoped to use the former school as a revenue generator. 
CHESHIRE, Mass. — When the Cheshire Elementary School was closed two years ago, the only silver lining to be found was the potential revenue source it might provide to the town through leasing the space privately. 
 
The Board of Selectmen are still working hard to figure out a formula that works.
 
Tuesday night's meeting was a good example as the board weighed the cost of temporary heating upgrades for the cafeteria versus rent the town receives from tenants. The upgrades would essentially serve one tenant that holds fitness classes in the west wing of the building. The school currently has three lessees: Youth Center Inc., the school district administration, and Berkshire Body.
 
"Electric heaters look to be the safest and most cost effective means to provide heating for the space," said Town Administrator Edmund St. John III. "We estimate the cost of the installation will be somewhere around $3,500." 
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