WHITMAN – The Board of Selectmen made a groundbreaking hire and heard a sobering update on COVID-19 in town during its first meeting of the New Year on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
Veteran Sara Lansing, who served nine years in the National Guard out of Hingham, was named as Whitman’s new Veterans’ Services Officer following interviews with her and applicants James Murphy and Brian Richards. East Bridegwater Veteran’s Agent Chris Buckley, who has been helping Whitman veterans during the absence of a VSO, conducted the interviews for the board.
The interviews and vote followed a sobering COVID update from Fire Chief and Emergency Management Director Timothy Grenno.
He reported 110 new cases of coronavirus over the past 14 days, bringing the number of positive cases — and contact tracing cases likely to become positive — in town to “well over 300.”
“We’re pretty much at a critical standpoint,” Grenno said. The 10.24 percent positivity rating from two weeks ago is now up to 10.5 percent and is expected to climb higher this week as town health officials await post-New Year’s Eve numbers.
“I can tell you that our local hospitals are all at surge capacity,” he said. “They’re transferring patients out every day, just to try to make room for new patients coming in.”
The patients his department is seeing are “very sick patients” as they are transferring more COVID-positive patients now than they were in the first wave.
“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now until we get past this next surge,” Grenno said. “In the fire service, we say that a smoke detector is your first line of defense for a house fire, well, in COVID your first line of defense is a facial covering.”
Grenno also addressed those who may believe the pandemic is a hoax.
“There’s a lot of non-believers out there,” he said. “I would suggest … they should go visit an ICU or CCU right now, because more and more people are dying every day. … It’s not good out there.”
The 22-year-old nephew of one of Grenno’s firefighters is in critical condition with COVID in an area ICU right now.
Grenno also asked Selectmen for four specific actions to better handle the pandemic, which the board approved:
• Authorization to hire a temporary, part-time administrative assistant to help with documentation, scheduling and reporting of all vaccination programs, funded by federal CARES funds;
• Appoint one Selectmen to serve as fiduciary authority, working with the treasurer/collector and Grenno for future CARES expenditures and any further stimulus funding. Selectman Randy LaMattina volunteered to serve in that capacity;
• Bring candidates on board to assist the Board of Health with procedures and Chairman Dan Salvucci suggested the Recreation office be used for now; and
• Return to the spring policy of no in-person inspections, outside training, extensive modifications of response policies, and closing the fire station to public access during this phase of the pandemic.
Grenno also said other town department heads should review their operations and ensure buildings are basically locked down and staff wear masks at all times.
Selectman Justin Evans also suggested that unused meeting rooms could be used for Town Hall staff to space out for safety during the pandemic.
“COVID is everywhere in town right now,” Grenno said. “The biggest thing is facial coverings. … We’re our own worst enemies. Quite frankly, if anyone gets up from their desk and leaves their workspace they should have a face covering on.”
Candidates were asked to outline their understanding of the veterans’ benefits provided under MGL Ch. 115, and their personal experience which would assist them in serving as VSO.
Lansing had been deployed with her National Guard transportation unit in 2002-03 and has since been very active in the Duxbury American Legion. She is a past commander of the post and still an active member for the past 10 years.
Under her leadership the post went from struggling to among the top 20 in the state.
“I love working with veterans,” Lansing said. “I’m not currently working and I go visit veterans in Duxbury that are alone at home and just want somebody to talk to.”
She stressed that she would explain the appeal process if veterans are turned down for Ch. 115 assistance, as well as options through other avenues. She demonstrated her familiarity with the disability claims process and how she would manage the office budget.
When asked about how she would organize her day, Lansing said much of it would involve reaching out to veterans and organizing people who like to work together with the Legion and VFW to take care of veterans that need help.
“Once you’re in the military, you become part of a family,” she said.
Lansing is proficient in all Microsoft applications as well as QuikBooks, a level of comfort with technology neither Murphy or Richards claimed.
“I can learn almost any program on a computer,” she said. “If allowed, I would probably start a Facebook page for Veterans’ Services and I would do mailings [about events].”
She expressed a willingness to put in extra time, if needed, to catch up with back any paperwork.
In discussing their vote, Selectmen asked Buckley, Assistant Town Administrator Lisa Green and Selectman Brian Bezanson, who formed the search panel, for their input.
Green said Lansing would be a good choice for Whitman.
“All three candidates are outstanding,” Buckley said. “If you’re asking me, as far as a full spectrum, I believe Sara would be a good candidate.”
Bezanson agreed, noting any of the three would be a good choice.
“I’ve always thought someone who works in town and lives in town gives them some skin in the game, however, I think Sara would be a good choice here,” he said.
Selectmen Justin Evans and LaMattina agreed.
“She impressed me,” LaMattina said. “But I also thought Mr. Murphy was good, too.
Selectman Dr. Carl Kowalski said it was a tough choice.
“I don’t think we could go wrong with any of the three candidates,” he said. “Sara is a breath of fresh air.”
An accountant for more than 30 years, Murphy has been the finance officer for the Legion and Sons of the American Legion in Whitman. He stressed his activity on parade committees and toll booth fundraisers as well as with the Marine Corps League. He also noted the photos of veterans events he has had published in the Express.
Richards has worked as a heating contractor and has experience with the VA claims process and has done budgeting as president of the Massasoit Veterans’ Club and a radio club he has belonged to.