By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
Discussion during the 8/17 Fairhaven Selectboard meeting deteriorated as the meeting entered a second hour and Chairperson Daniel Freitas lost his patience during Selectboard member Bob Espindola’s request to wrap up some old business.
Mr. Freitas’s and Mr. Espindola’s differences of opinion were consistent throughout the night, with disagreement most evident during talks that led up to a 2-1 vote in favor of paying interim Health Agent Sarah DuPont a step 3 salary under the personnel bylaw.
Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia both voted in favor of the higher wage for the new employee, both saying that it would be unfair to offer her one rate and then two weeks later reduce it to a step as recommended by Town Administrator Mark Rees.
“We have to make some changes in the future as to how the elected officials are taken in this town, because that’s my problem right now,” said Mr. Freitas. “A lot more we’re being sidestepped and then we’re being told at some point that this is what we’re gonna start paying people.”
He said he could bring up several instances when employees were paid “thousands more” than the board’s recommended rate, “And we were told ‘no.’”
Expressing his hope that the board would back him up, Mr. Espindola replied, “I’m not sure what the sidestepping referred to. My only concern when I asked the question was about how this was going to be dealt with in terms of a precedent that it might send to someone else.”
Mr. Freitas argued that the money used to pay DuPont’s salary was from federal COVID-19 funds, which Mr. Espindola said should not matter.
“It’s hard when you’ve established a precedent to do something different, so it could have more far reaching implications,” said Mr. Espindola.
“To be clear,” he continued, “I did not interfere with the process whatsoever.”
Mr. Espindola suggested the guidelines in the personnel bylaw were established years ago in order to eliminate that very concern on inequity.
“I don’t think we should be sidestepping,” said Mr. Frietas. “I’m very confused as to who’s the — technically in charge of who.”
Meanwhile, via telephone connection to the remote meeting, Board of Health member Michael Ristuccia tried several times to interrupt to comment but was finally asked to mute his microphone until called upon.
“It’s short money,” said Mr. Freitas. “We’re not looking at millions of dollars.”
Town Counsel Thomas Crotty explained how he interpreted the law that gives authority to set the wage to the town administrator.
Mr. Freitas defended his position, saying, “If this lady hadn’t stepped up or been brought in, we wouldn’t have an interim health agent in there. The office would have been empty. She was brought in, technically … the staff that was normally there wasn’t there. She was offered a position, she started working….then it was decided that the pay was going to go down, as far as I know. She’s got a Masters degree, she … was in charge of a group of people, I think she’s done a pretty good job…. I think it’s unfair.”
Mr. Espindola said he disagreed with Mr. Freitas’s assumption that no one else could have stepped into the interim health agent role, and urged the board to follow Mr. Rees’s advice on a lower rate. Two motions ensued, with Mr. Silvia seconding Mr. Freitas’s step 3 motion.
“She came in short notice [and has] done what was asked of her,” said Mr. Silvia. “I kind of feel it’s an insult to pull it,” adding that he had “no problem with going to the step 3.”
“It might not be an issue if the advice that was originally given was followed or if there was some communication there about it in advance,” argued Mr. Espindola. “But, anyway, we have two motions…”
Mr. Freitas interrupted him, saying, “Communication, Bob? That is — that is definitely lacking here. We definitely have a serious communication issue here.”
“In a number of directions,” said Mr. Espindola.
“Oh absolutely!” said Mr. Freitas. “One-thousand percent, I can honestly say that.”
Wrapping up the agenda, Mr. Espindola wanted to follow-up on his request for a Department of Revenue study on town finances in light of COVID-19, at no cost to the Town. Back in July Mr. Espindola first proposed the study, and Mr. Freitas was not enthusiastic about the idea, but he did allow a motion to explore the study carry; however, if the two other board members reviewed the proposal in their free time and did not like it, then Mr. Rees would cease to investigate it. Mr. Espindola said that although his fellow board members later decided against the DOR study, the matter was never concluded during open meeting.
“We never actually followed through on that and spoke publicly about that,” said Mr. Espindola. “We just said we’d take it offline and review … and come back and review it in public session so the community can understand why we did or did not want to have that study done…. All I’m asking is that we … let the public know officially why we’ve decided what we’re doing and that we close that one out one way or the other.”
“Mr. Espindola,” replied Mr. Freitas, “I will say this: you’ve asked me this for over the several weeks – the night that we discussed this I was against it. We then allowed that evening for Mr. Silvia to take that and take it from there and he came back and voted no on this.”
Mr. Espindola tried to reply, “He came back and said that he voted no”
Mr. Freitas, interrupting him, said, “He said that he did not want to bring this issue up, I believe that that is – I didn’t hear that, that went through Mr. Rees.”
Mr. Freitas’ sentences were at times incomplete. “You asked me to ask him and I would not do that…”
Mr. Espindola immediately replied, “No, I did not ask that, all I asked was for this to be on our agenda again so that it could be a public discussion –”
“Again,” said Mr. Freitas over him. “We could go back and forth on this but the…last email that said – I said to you, please find out through [Mr. Rees] whether [Mr. Silvia] wanted to do it and I think we’ve both said several times that we do not want this on the – that this is not an agenda item.
“I don’t know why we’re going to take time and waste it if there are two people who’ve said – but I will say this,” continued Mr. Freitas. “If you want to do that, I will bring up some of the stuff that I had in the past that I had brought up that I was ignored on and was not even given the opportunity to continue to ask for it.”
Mr. Freitas said that some of his past agenda item requests went ignored by Mr. Espindola and former Selectboard member Charles Murphy. He also mentioned an issue he had with the Building Department, and later made accusations of accounting issues within the department.
Mr. Freitas insisted that he always puts Mr. Espindola’s agenda item requests on for him, despite the alleged “eye rolls” Mr. Freitas got for his own past agenda requests.
“…And now we’re trying to deal with it now … a year and a half later, we’re still having the same problems we were having back then, so I would say shame on certain individuals for letting that happen,” said Mr. Freitas, adding that he could not understand why they need to discuss the DOR study any further.
“Again,” said Mr. Espindola, “a public process that starts in our public meeting deserves to be concluded in our public meeting. Saying that we don’t want to put it on the agenda doesn’t solve that problem. There was a motion and a second by you, Mr. Chairman, that … if the majority did not want the letter to go to the DOR then it wouldn’t go, but we would come back…”
Mr. Freitas interrupted, “Bob, you’ll have your DOR report on there, but I’m gonna tell you right now – I’m gonna have a list yourself that I’m gonna bring up myself,” he said pointing his finger at Mr. Espindola.
“I’m gonna tell you right now, I’m gonna bring it up. I’m gonna show you the meetings when I discussed this and it was never ever brought up again at those meetings.”
“The question is, did you ask for it to be on an –” Mr. Espindola tried to ask Mr. Freitas.
“Absolutely! Absolutely!” said Mr. Freitas. “I actually went and sat with the town administrator on some of this stuff, so these things should have been on – that’s why we have a bad communication problem here.”
Mr. Freitas told Mr. Espindola he would put the DOR study on the next agenda and said, “…And you can waste all of our time doing this as far as you want. As far as I’m concerned, if this is what we’re gonna do every time somebody says ‘no’ and the answer’s ‘no’, we’re gonna continue to berate and bring it up, you absolutely can do this. I’ll put it on the next agenda meeting and at that point we will publicly state again that we’re against it….”
“Mr. Silvia never publicly made a comment, all he said is he wanted time to review it,” said Mr. Espindola.
Mr. Silvia said to Mr. Espindola, “Did you get my email, Bob, that I said I didn’t want to…”
“OK,” said Mr. Espindola. “Emails are not supposed to be deciding…. My question is, how do we close out the loop on a motion that was made and a second –”
Mr. Freitas interrupted and looked to Mr. Rees: “Could we please put this on the next agenda? We’ll sit here and – would you like the gentleman to come in too?” he asked Mr. Espindola.
“Yes, I would,” said Mr. Espindola. “I think it’s a very important matter.”
Speaking over him, Mr. Freitas agreed and lamented, “…We’ll sit there and then we’ll explain to him that he’s having his time wasted….”
He then suggested that Mr. Espindola didn’t appreciate the urgency of other matters beyond the DOR study.
“Town Hall is falling down around us, OK? And if that’s what’s more important to you than the other things that I’ve mentioned at these meetings – I will give you a DOR report, ok?” said Mr. Freitas.
“The town’s budget is very important,” said Mr. Espindola, “because the town, financially, we have resources. Financially, we can solve a lot of problems.”
“We don’t have a Board of Health right now!” Mr. Freitas said over him loudly. “We have a serious morale problem … but I’m going to give you time with your gentleman, but … you yourself said you’d rather wait for the morale problems, yourself – you said that, you absolutely said that,” Mr. Freitas continued as Mr. Espindola denied it. “You’d rather wait for a grant to be written on this and … when it comes to the finding out the funding problems that we’re having in the Building Department, I don’t see – That should be priority number one!”
Mr. Espindola said he just wanted to explore a grant to fund the morale study before he could commit to funding it.
“I didn’t know where this money was going to come from,” said Mr. Espindola. “I had no idea how much it was going to cost.”
He said the Town had just asked department heads to make drastic cuts to their budgets and continued, “On one hand we’re hearing we’ve got to make significant cuts; on the other hand we’re saying let’s just charge forward with a study that we don’t even know how much it’s going to cost, but maybe we could get a grant for it…. We have an obligation to identify a funding source for anything that we authorize … that’s all,” said Mr. Espindola.
Mr. Freitas shook his head and whispered “Jesus…” and laughed.
Mr. Silvia said the board should fund the morale study, one of his top priorities.
“I think, if we straightened out the morale here, we probably would save so much legal fees because we have lawyers like a constant here.”
“Some of these issue are coming from outside the building,” said Mr. Espindola, “but just be aware of that.”
“Bob,” said Mr. Freitas, “I can say that you are unaware of a lot of things that are happening.
“I’m aware of some things,” said Mr. Espindola.
“You are completely unaware,” asserted Mr. Freitas.
“The bottom line is … I just want an answer … on how we’re gonna pay for it and in the context of our budget, if we can do that, I am 100 percent in favor of it,” said Mr. Espindola.
“You’ll have your DOR study,” said Mr. Freitas. “And if you want, you can make it an hour or whatever, I don’t know, whatever you want to do.
“Thank you,” Mr. Freitas said abruptly ending the discussion, and then mumbled “Ridiculous,” as he shook his head.
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