HANSON — With a major winter storm being forecast for the weekend, the Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Jan. 25 discussed potential conflicts involved in some town employees doing double duty as plow operators. One such issue surrounded a Water Department employee who has filed a routine disclosure of potential conflict of interest with the town. The Board approved his disclosure statement, permitting him to plow.
“I understand that it’s permitted and that a [legal] opinion has been received, but I think it’s poor precedent,” Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I guess I’m concerned that it’s quite likely that in the middle of a storm — and this has definitely happened — there could be a water main break and where do those allegiances lie?”
She said she considers the Water Department to be a first responder and questioned how employees could be permitted to plow when an emergency could occur.
“As a public employee, your best interest falls with your employer, number one,” said Selectman Chairman Matt Dyer. “His first priority would be his job and I think as long as we clarify that is what is expected of you, I think that’s a good way to go about it.”
He said Water Department employees had been permitted to do snow plowing in the past.
“As long as it’s clear what the priorities are and [Green] as a procurement officer is comfortable that nothing inappropriate happened in the determination of who was being awarded a snow plowing contact …,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “I want to make sure there is no lapse in procurement in this and there’s not going to be any ambiguities whatsoever as far as what the priorities are here.”
Green said snow plowing contracts are not subject to procurement regulations because towns advertise for plow drivers every year instead of a bidding process.
FitzGerald-Kemmett asked if the town hires everyone who applies.
“I think this year, we are,” Dyer said.
“I have no problem if we hire everybody who applies,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “To the extent that if there’s ever a determination over who should and should not be hired, then I’m going to have a problem about it.”
She argued that, from an ethical standpoint, she didn’t see how an average person looking in from the outside could be comfortable with the process.
Green said the Highway Department normally takes the lead in that process and she does not monitor it, but said she would have a discussion with Highway Superintendent Jameson Shave about the issue. She noted that new Town Hall maintenance person Charlie Baker is also going to be plowing for the Highway Department.
“He called ethics … and filed a disclosure,” Green said.
Selectmen Joe Weeks said with the forecast for this weekend, plow drivers would likely be working all night long.
“I just want to make sure … if someone is plowing all night, and they’re going to be exhausted …there is ample coverage [for other emergencies], that people do have people there ready to go, backup for backup,” he said.
FitzGerald-Kemmett said the Water Department should also be apprised of the situation.
Green said she has made it clear to Baker that Town Hall snow and ice removal is his first priority, followed by the Library/Senior Center before his plowing work.
Selectmen voted to open the annual Town Meeting warrant and discussed options for locations in case COVID variants were still a problem by the Monday, May 2.
As of Tuesday, Green reported there are 406 active cases of COVID in town. While that is higher than the last Selectment’s meeting, she said numbers statewide appear to be dropping and starting to stabilize.
FitzGerald-Kemmett stressed that the 400 represent calls to the Board of Health, which requires a PCR test and a medical provider has to report that finding. It does not mean there are only 400 cases in town.
Selectmen opted to retain the mandate for masks in town buildings until the board’s next meeting in two weeks.
“I would like to err on the side of caution,” said FitzGerald-Kemmett. “Although I am desperately hoping that we’ll be pleasantly surprised to not have COVID running rampant, but I think it would be foolish for us to assume that at this point.”
She said she would be much more comfortable seeking space at the high school as Town Administrator Lisa Green suggested.
Dyer said he really enjoyed having Town Meeting outside, noting that it was close to graduation and they could use the stage if it was up. The WHRHS calendar has graduation on Friday, June 3.
“If [the graduation stage is not up], I’m OK with inside the auditorium,” he said.
Green said she would be discussing the options in more detail with Town Clerk Elizabeth Sloan, Town Moderator Sean Kealy and school district officials.
“I just wanted an idea of what direction the board was moving into so we can look at those options,” Green said, noting cost issues would also be reviewed.
“I don’t want there to be a prohibition on people being engaged because they feel unsafe attending Town Meeting, that’s the bottom line for me,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
IT Director Steve Moberg reported he has signed the town up for a state Security Awareness Grant which sends out “training” exercises throughout the year, including phishing tests to try to educate staff about safe practices.
“[They] try to trick our users into clicking on them, and if they do click on them, they’ll get an email back saying they clicked on something that they shouldn’t have clicked on and they’ll be assigned additional training,” Moberg said.
Dyer asked if everyone was aware of the tests. Moberg said they hadn’t been made aware of it, he would be making them aware of the program through an email to all staff by the end of the week. He is also looking into ATT’s FirstNet program, a platform operated by the government since 9/11 as a cell service dedicated to first responders with a 99.9 percent up time. If it fails, ATT could be fined by the government, unlike commercial programs. And it could save the town $4 to $5 per line — or $200 per month for the town’s 70 lines. It runs off the same cell towers but the FCC has authorized more power through the system.
Police Chief Michael Miksch doesn’t really want to move from Verizon, Moberg said, so Town Hall will be shifted to FirstNet and perhaps the chief might change his mind later. Moberg said that in the wake of the October Nor’Easter that knocked out cell towers all over the area, FirstNet should help the town.
He also said all the town’s servers should be upgraded or shut down by the end of the week.