2018-05-04 / Community

Appointment process disappoints ‘stickler’

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — Having been called to the carpet over a new method for making committee appointments, Kennebunk selectmen held a special workshop session on the topic Monday, but the chief result was an agreement to disagree with its head watchdog.

In the past, selectmen have conducted interviews with applicants to town boards and committees, generally convening at 6:30 p.m., then making the actual appointment during the regular business meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. While the interview sessions are open to the public, those sessions are not broadcast over community television, or recorded for playback online, unlike the regular session.

However, at a March 27 meeting, selectmen appointed Paul Jackson to the Site Plan Review Board without a prior interview. The board acted on the recommendation of Town Manager Mike Pardue, who had interviewed Jackson on March 12, alongside Human Resources Director Jeri Sheldon and Community Planning Director Chris Osterreider.

Then, at their April 24 meeting, selectmen appointed Maureen Flaherty to an alternate seat on the town’s nine-person economic development committee. Again, there was no selectboard interview. Instead, Flaherty was recommended following an April 9 interview with Pardue and Sheldon.

At this second deviation from past practice, Dane Street resident John Costin got up and began wagging a finger.

Costin said his issue was not with the actual appointment of Flaherty, a three-year resident of the town, who works as chief marketing officer for Kennebunk Savings Bank. Instead, the issue was that selectmen appeared to have abandoned their own policy without so much as a byyour leave to the public.

Costin, a self-acknowledged “stickler for following policy,” pointed out that the town’s Statement of Policy on Appointments to Boards, Committees and Commissions, last updated May 14, 2013, says selectmen “shall seek to meet with all prospective new appointees in order to discuss special qualifications, expertise and interest of applicants.”

“The standing expectation of anyone who reads that policy is that this (interview) is going to be conducted by the selectmen,” Costin said. “And having that process conducted in an open forum is warranted, so that people know it’s going on and can attend if they want, as opposed to it being off in an office somewhere where it is not a public process.”

However, Pardue said the new process was undertaken “not to circumvent the policy,” but to, “try to enhance the process a little bit more.”

The problem, Pardue said is that there ended up being few actual questions asked by selectmen during their interview session.

Selectman Ed Karytko agreed, saying these interview sessions were generally limited to selectmen checking for a pulse.

“Quite honestly, in a lot of cases, if there’s a warm body who wants to get on a committee, that person is on the committee,” he said.

“The process was a charade, it was awkward,” Selectman Blake Baldwin agreed. “I’ve never heard a real substantive question asked during that period.”

According to Selectman William Ward, it was during an interview session earlier in the year that the board turned to Pardue to ask if there was a better way.

Pardue decided there was, and, so, began interviewing applicants personally, during the work day, alongside whatever town staffers might be appropriate to a given committee. The idea, Parude says, is to arm the applicant with all the info needed on what a particular committee does and how it operates, as well as to vet the candidate. He then authors a recommendation as a starting point for selectmen.

Costin suggested that if selectmen wanted to follow a different procedure, they ought to have changed the policy first.

However, at the April 30 workshop, Pardue said the new process is actually covered by a section of the appointment policy, which reads, “The Board of Selectmen, as the appointive authority, reserves the right to collectively and individually use whatever additional factors it deems appropriate in considering the appointment or reappointment of a citizen or non-resident to a town committee.”

Selectmen agreed that about covered it and no re-write of the policy was required.

Still, Constin voiced concern. For one, he said, how could the public be assured that everyone who applied to be on a town committee got a place in line for openings.

“Within my family, we’ve experienced a double-whammy,” he said. “I had my reappointment to the budget board ‘pocket vetoed’ twice for political reasons and my wife was kept off the economic development committee by the (previous) town manager, also making a pocket veto, for political reasons, in what was really kind of a hurtful and, I found, ugly incident.”

Costin’s wife, Rachel Phipps, did eventually get an appointment, and sits on that committee today. However, there was much pubic debate at the time over what actually went down and selectmen had agreed then to overhaul the appointment process. That never happened, until the recent tweak, which board chairman Richard Morin deemed a “test flight.”

“It is not the role of staff to exclude or weed out anyone in this process,” Pardue said. “This tweak to police is only to streamline and add more credibility to the process.”

“It’s better for the people, more professional. I’m all for the change,” Selectman Dan Boothby said.

Still, Costin pressed his case. When some selectmen suggested that, as an additional tweak, Pardue might perform background checks on applicants, Costin deemed that “an incredible invasion of privacy.”

Costin also continued to suggest that it was improper for staff to interview the applicant.

“The staffing and boards and committees is the public’s business and as the public’s business it’s important that it happen in public,” he said.

But Pardue said his part in the process is “only about building bridges and relationships” — that it still falls to selectmen to make the actual appointment, or not. And that will continue to happen at public meetings.

At that Costin returned to his initial concern, that the public was never made aware of any change in appointment process. He jumped on that issue particularly hard when Morin seemed to contradict Ward’s account of how the change had come to pass, when he said he personally had authorized Pardue to begin conducting informal personal interviews.

“So, that wasn’t a board action?” he asked

“There was a conversation,” Morin said.

“Well, what I’m hung up on is the board can only act by action,” Costin said.

“We were operating under the policy. There wasn’t any action required,” Baldwin said.

“Did some give the town manager instruction?” Costin asked

“I don’t know. I wasn’t there,” Baldwin said.

“It wasn’t instruction, it was discussion,” Morin said.

“That’s funny,” Costin said, “because a moment ago you said ...”

“John, give up will you,” Morin interrupted.

“No, I will never give up,” Costin countered.

“Then leave,”Morin said, “ because you’re done, we’re moving on to the next (agenda) item. Let’s move on.”

“The problem is that action was was taken not through appropriate channels,” Costin said, getting in the last word. “The chairman conducts meetings, the chairman doesn’t direct the town manager to action apart from the rest of the board. You can move on, but I am never going to stop calling you on doing stuff behind closed doors.”

Left undecided Monday was Boothby’s suggestion that the appointment policy include a passage allowing spouses to serve on the same committee. Or not. He wasn’t particular, he just thought it ought to be clarified.

Also left to a future workshop was Morin’s concern that the town has too many committees and ought to weed out a few, as well as Costin’s question over what policy should say about taking application in the order submitted, and what selection criteria the board will use on the rare occasion when it is presented with more than one application for a single open seat.

Pardue did say staffers are working on a guide book for future committee appointments, including a primer on right-to-know and freedom of access laws.

One committee that has gone by the wayside, he said, although it has yet to be formally killed by selectmen, is the festival committee.

“All of its functions are now being performed by town staff,” Pardue said.

And, finally, there is the question of recruitment, as the town currently has 26 vacancies on its various volunteer boards.

Anyone interested in serving us encouraged to submit an application found on the town website at www.kennebunkmaine.us/94/Town-Committees.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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