WHITMAN — Fire Lt. Bryan Smith was sworn in during the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 24 as the board discussed mask guidelines and procedure for the town administrator’s evaluation.
Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman also indicated a mask mandate for schools may be coming soon from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Fire Chief Timothy Clancy said Smith began his career as one of Whitman Fire’s first high school interns. The program has produced a lot of firefighters for the department over the years.
A 2001 W-H graduate, Smith earned his EMT and paramedic certifications, joining the Kingston Fire Department in 2004. He joined Whitman Fire-Rescue in 2008 as a full-time firefighter/paramedic. He earned an associates degree from Columbia Southern University and recently completed Fire Officer I training.
His wife Jessica and children Annabelle and Colin shared the badge pinning honors with Smith’s father Gary Smith, a retired Hanson firefighter. Smith’s brother is a Holbrook firefighter.
“It’s either in their blood, or there’s something in the water in Hanson,” Clancy said.
After the promotion ceremony, Selectmen began hearing program updates on the Whitman Cultural Council and Dollars for Scholars, but took a brief sidetrack into mask policies, which was revisited later in the meeting.
Dawn Byers and William Haran, of the Whitman Cultural Council had attended the meeting to report on the Council’s new members and recent Community Input Survey as well as upcoming events.
“I’d like you to think about and how we set up our meetings going forward,” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said to the board and Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman about the mask Byers was wearing, in view of the fact that a sign on the Town Hall door recommends CDC mask and social distancing guidelines.
Kowalski said he felt terrible that he was not wearing a mask.
“I’d like us to be distanced more than we are today, and set up the room to show we’re thinking about the right thing to do,” he said.
Byers thanked the board for appointing five new members to the Cultural Council over the past two months, bringing it to a full panel of seven. She then introduced Haran, whose report included an overview of the outdoor concert series that begins Thursday, Sept. 9 with a performance by Uncommon Soul from 5:30 to 7 p.m. [See announcement, page 5]. An open house at the Library Community Room will be held from 7 to 8 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 16.
Later in the meeting, Heineman briefed the board on COVID numbers and procedures — reporting that the COVID positivity rate has been rising in Whitman, the state and region, largely due to the Delta and Lambda variants, to which people are more susceptible when they are unvaccinated.
“What we do know is the vast majority of the folks hospitalized or very sick are unvaccinated,” he said.
A plan is being formulated between Fire Chief Clancy and the Board of Health for a booster shot program, after meeting last week. A return to first and second-dose clinics were also discussed but the “feeling was that wouldn’t be a good use of resources at the moment because anyone who wants to be vaccinated now has access through other means,” Heineman said, noting that most pharmacies offer them.
“Schools are primary interest for most folks,” Heineman said and reporting the DESE gave permission to Commissioner Riley to mandate masks. “That seems pretty clear [that] while he hasn’t officially done that yet … in the coming days that mandate will be in place for schools.”
The town’s buildings have been following the recommendations of public health officials, including the CDC, he noted. The Whitman Board of Health has issued a “strong recommendation” for masks for indoor locations, but not a mandate at this point.
“It’s not enough to recommend,” Kowalski adding that only four people in a crowded room for Lt. Smith’s promotion ceremony — two adults and two children — were wearing masks. “It just strikes me a so logical that there are two ways to combat this virus — one of them is to mask up … the other is to get vaccinated.”
Where vaccine mandates are concerned, Heineman said that, while the state’s executive branch and many employers are mandating vaccines, the Whitman Board of Health is still recommending, but not requiring vaccinations.
Selectman Brian Bezanson, who had COVID in January despite following mask guidelines, urged people to get vaccinated as he has since, and said he would recommend, but not mandate, masks.
Selectman Randy LaMattina agreed that it is a personal decision to have a health option.
“My family has been vaccinated … we did that because we trust the science,” he said. “Now people have skepticism. I think this, unfortunately is because a vaccine got politicized and we’re paying the price for that right now.”
He said zero deaths have occurred in breakthrough cases of people who have been vaccinates.
“I think people have to get vaccinated,” he said, suggesting that mandating a mask could give skeptics a reason to doubt the vaccine.
“If there’s something that’s more effective right now, it’s the vaccine,” Selectman Justin Evans said.
Town administrator goals
Heineman has submitted a list of goals and objectives to the board as requested at a previous meeting, and Kowalski said they have been working with counsel to refine the evaluation form.
“Not all the goals can be accomplished in a year,” Kowalski said, asking which Heineman thought could be handled in the first year or are most important to him.
Of the 14 goals and objectives he listed, Heineman pointed to improved communication with representatives of the W-H Regional School District concerning strategic planning and the budget process; identifying and pursuing a clear path forward for the Park Avenue School property; bringing a final DPW building plan to Town Meeting and possible regionalization of animal control services.
“Right off the bat, I think getting an assistant town administrator in here before the year is over, or as soon as possible would be one that we should want to handle for this year,” Kowalski said.
“I absolutely agree with Lincoln’s recommendation of trying to develop a better relationship with the school district,” Selectman Randy LaMattina said. He also agreed with the Park Avenue School item.
“There’s nothing on this list that I could say we could take off, it’s developing a timeline after that,” he said. “I think he made it hard for us, because this list of goals alone is almost a strategic plan.”
Kowalski suggested ranking the items he wanted to complete in the coming year for the Sept. 28 meeting.
Michelle LaMattina of Dollars For Scholars provided an overview of the second annual Decorating for Scholars event.
“We want to make it a little bigger this year,” she said, indicating that more trees would be available for sponsoring, as well as event sponsorships that provide funds for lights, trees and signs. They are also looking into arranging food trucks and craft vendors as well as local performers and a visitor from the North Pole this year and are changing the time frame to one weekend. The event is planned for from 4 to 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 10; from 2 to 8 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 11 and from 4 to 8, Sunday, Dec. 12.
The Board voted to congratulate her and the DFS leadership for the success of last year’s inaugural event during a tough time. Michelle LaMattina said last year’s event was one of the group’s largest fundraisers over the past few years.
Randy LaMattina said a lot of people in town made last year’s event come together.
“It was great, and to pull it off in a year that people really needed something, I think it was a boost for the town,” he said.
Whitman Middle School
Heineman and Randy LaMattina serve on the building committee, which had issued a call for a request for services for Owner Project Manager. When the request response came back a subcommittee was to decide on a finalist to recommend to the full committee for MSBA approval. That has since been canceled and is being reissued, according to Heineman.
The committee met Tuesday afternoon and made the requested changes with an expected project price range of $50 million to $85 million. Applications would be due back by Oct.
“The process was put off for a few months, but it is moving forward,” he said.
“I think this whole process is going to be a little bit of a wrestling match, a little bit of a tug of war,” Randy LaMattina said. “There’s clearly a need for a new building. … We’re moving forward in a positive direction.”