Chester board reverses course, will interview in private

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2017 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board reversed course last week, deciding to hold interviews for volunteer positions in secret, with one board member saying that the public should trust the board in this matter and another one indicating that executive sessions were necessary because  the public could not be trusted to be well-mannered.

The board voted unanimously on Wednesday, March 15 to conduct all interviews of candidates for the town’s Planning Commission and Development Review Board behind closed doors. Two weeks earlier, it had decided the exact opposite.

Heather Chase, left, felt interviews in open session might depress volunteerism. Ben Whalen, right, hoped the public trusts the board.  Photo by Shawn Cunningham

At the most recent meeting, board member Ben Whalen stated that the question is one of transparency but also trust in the board.

“We’re elected into our positions,” said Whalen. “I would hope you have faith in us to do the right thing.  That’s why we’re here.”

“We need to be doing it one way or the other,” Whalen continued, noting that the “either or option” — having the choice to do it in open or in executive session —  might be a good compromise, but that they needed to be fair and impartial.

Board chair Arne Jonynas looked at the choice as one of protecting applicants from the public, citing the recent situation in which Planning Commission member Tom Hildreth walked out of a meeting in which  candidates for zoning administrator were about to be interviewed, and a resident questioned incumbent Michael Normyle’s job performance. Hildreth resigned the following morning and left the commission without a quorum.

“It’s hard to control the meetings sometimes,” said Jonynas, asserting that he felt that it’s more fair to do the interviews without the public present. “You hope to try to control the meeting, you hope to do the right thing but it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Board member Heather Chase said that as people are doing less volunteering, having meetings in open sessions might suppress applications.

Jonynas said that if an applicant wanted to be interviewed in open session, that was a possibility, but he favored executive sessions. “There’s five of us,” said Jonynas. “That’s open enough.”

A recording of the Planning Commission meeting that Jonynas referred to shows that Marilyn Mahusky was allowed to speak regarding Normyle’s job performance before the interviews were to begin and Hildreth became upset and left. Until that point, the audio of the meeting seemed calm and in fact Normyle told the commission that he was not offended by the comments and asked Hildreth to stay.

Planning for openness

On March 1, after wrangling with a procedure for the interviews for several months, the board had agreed on a list of things to be incorporated into a draft procedure to be signed at the March 15 meeting. These included:

  • creating a timeline for appointments
  • conducting interviews in open, public sessions
  • deliberating in closed session
  • allowing an option for follow-up interviewing in executive session
  • allowing no public comment or interaction during interview, and
  • applying the process only to candidates for the Planning Commission and DRB.

What came back from Town Manager David Pisha was not one, but three draft procedures. All three contained identical language except the part on whether interviews would be open to the public or closed. The drafts gave three options: all interviews in the open, a choice of doing interviews in the open or in executive session and all interviews in executive session.

The record is a mixed bag

In the past, positions on town boards were filled by the Select Board without interviews.

In 2012, the Select Board instituted what it said was a new policy in which there would be interviews for board positions. One member said that the process was a new way of doing business. According to the minutes of that meeting, Derek Suursoo said that the board typically just re-appointed whoever was in the position, which, he added, was not a good way of doing business.

Over the objections of a number of people present, the board then went into executive session to interview Carla Westine, Amy O’Neil, Kathy Pellett and incumbent Scott Wunderle for two positions on the DRB. While Wunderle had many years’ experience on the DRB, Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Adjustment, Westine and O’Neil were appointed.

The following year, the same board reappointed DRB member Harry Goodell and appointed new members Heidi Ladd and Don Robinson without interviews or executive session. Alternates were also reappointed in 2013 and 2014 without regard to the new procedure used in 2012.

But, when Heidi Ladd’s untimely death created a vacancy on the DRB, the board reverted to its 2012 procedure and held a closed door session to interview Phil Perlah before appointing him. Since that time, two new appointments and several reappointments have been made without any interviews, open or closed. And since Robinson’s death in August 2015, his position has remained vacant, and the DRB has relied on alternates.

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