For an hour, the board unraveled a tangled web of miscommunication, missed communications, and missing communications between selectmen, Town Manager Mark Haddad, Director of the Council on Aging Kathy Shelp, and board members of the Council on Aging (CoA), peppered with a side discussion of policy regarding private vs. public communications.
The good news is that with all the players in one room, the controversy got talked out, apparently to everyone’s satisfaction. Another plus is that Selectman Stuart Schulman brought forward a draft policy for the handling of emails that will be considered at the BoS meeting on March 9.
The less good news is that the controversy pointed out in a public forum the political divisiveness between board members and between some board members and Haddad. So Degen will likely continue his roll as referee.
At the conclusion of the hourlong BoS discussion about the CoA emails, Degen asked Shelp to prepare a reply to resident John Nojeim’s three questions about a survey the CoA distributed with the town census: who reads and tabulates the survey forms, if the comments are shared with any third parties, and whether the selectmen can see the original forms.
Shelp jumped on the opportunity to reply. She said Friday, “We (she and the CoA) welcomed that! I was waiting for that! That’s what we were waiting for. But we’re going to get over it and move on.”
The reply went out on Tuesday morning, Degen said, less than a day after the meeting. The email Degen sent was either a forward of an email from Shelp or based on a document she prepared:
I apologize for the delayed response to your email. Here are the answers. I hope that they meet your needs. If the is anything else please feel free to contact me.
In response to the questions posed by Mr. Nojeim on February 7
#1 Please inform me the names of people who actually tabulate and read the input provides on the COA survey included in the census package.
This will be done by COA staff and volunteers. The specific people has yet to be determined, it will be based on the number of responses.
#2 Are the comment provided to an independent third party?
I would say yes, we have a professional resident who has done this for a living and is not vested in the COA in that he does not participate in programs and is not on our board of directors but has come forward to assist.
#3 So the selectman see them verbatim?
The surveys are public documents and available to anyone during our regular business hours.
I would welcome any resident that would like to assist with this project. At this time we have approximately 400 surveys returned so the more hands working on it, the quicker the results.
Lastly I would like to respond to Mr. Nojeim statement that he “understands there is dissatisfaction with the direction changes implemented by the new director”. To speak to this I would need to know specifically what changes he would like addressed. Without knowing the specific changes in question I am unable to respond to them. I have an open-door policy and welcome any comments from the public and senior center participants. I am a professional and have been in this field of work for 15 years. My experience supports many of the decisions at the COA but it is not done in a vacuum. I work with an advisory board, staff, volunteers and senior center participants to create an environment of inclusiveness.
Council on Aging Director
Town of Groton
163 W Main St
Groton, Mass 01450
An initial story gave a detailed look at the controversy last week.. The bullet point summary, compiled from statements made in the meeting and a thread of emails released by the town, is still long:
- On February 7, John Nojeim sent an email to the Board of Selectmen group email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) asking who reads and tabulates the survey forms, if the comments are shared with any third parties, and whether the selectmen can see the original forms. He concluded the email with a statement: “I understand there is dissatisfaction with the direction changes implemented by the new director Kathy Shelp, with influence, encouragement, and consent from the town manager.”
- Haddad monitors that email account, received the message Saturday afternoon, and forwarded it to Shelp, without comment or instructions
- An hour or so later, Haddad send the email to the individual selectmen and asked them what to do; how to reply.
- Selectman Jack Petropoulos replied to Haddad, telling him “Please just answer the questions and leave it at that. There is nothing to hide.”
- Petropoulos replied to Nojeim, acknowledging receipt of his email, but not attempting to answer the questions and not commenting on Nojeim’s assertion that there were problems at the Senior Center. He did send a copy to Chair Degen, but not to other selectmen or Haddad. He explained later that although all the emails were public documents, he thought the resident expected the communication to be private communications and he wanted to respect that.
- Petropoulos tried to reach Nojeim by phone at some point, but didn’t.
- Degen tried to reach him by phone also, and also did not receive a return call.
- Petropoulos sent an email to Haddad, saying that he had replied to the resident, but not providing any details of the reply.
- According to an email Haddad sent to all selectmen, Town Clerk Michael Bouchard, and town counsel David Doneski, on Monday, February 9. In it, he wrote:
- “Selectman Schulman stated that he would be happy to respond to this issue if he had a clear understanding of the matter, and Selectman Cunningham stated that Kathy Shelp is doing a great job and has the full support of the Council on Aging.” Those two emails were omitted from a package of emails publicly released last Monday,
- He complained that Petropoulos hadn’t included him on the private communication to the resident acknowledging receipt of the letter and wouldn’t reveal what was said: “In that email he stated that he replied to the email concerning the COA Director, but will not copy me because “nothing good will come from worrying about this, and retorts make you look worse than the criticism will ever do.” I have no idea what kind of response he thought I was going to write. My responses to residents are always professional and factual, but apparently Mr. Petropoulos does not trust me to respond on behalf of the Board. What is most troubling is the fact that he is responding to a resident about issues concerning a Department that I manage, but I cannot be copied on an email from a member of the Board of Selectmen? It appears that the only way I can receive any information from Mr. Petropoulos is by filing a public records request. As I said, that is very troubling and extremely unprofessional in my opinion.”
Haddad, a town employee who reports to the Board of Selectmen has filed two Public Information Requests (PIR) seeking emails between town residents and Petropoulos in the past.
- Petropoulos replied to Haddad’s email, writing: “I had a chance to follow up further with Mr. Nojeim. A few things were made clear and I got an understanding of his concerns. I agree with you that we should address them at an upcoming meeting.
As for the idea that an elected official should be required to copy you on correspondence with a citizen …….. . give that a little more thought.”
- At the end of the week, without being copied on any of the emails from Haddad or the selectmen, CoA Chair Maydell Gamester sent an email to Haddad and CC:ing the town’s human resources director and the Board of Selectmen, asking whether Petropoulos had, in his email, ” … discuss(ed) the facts about the census survey procedures” and if so, where the information came from.
During the meeting, Petropoulos repeatedly told the room that he had written nothing at all derogatory about the CoA, Shelp, or the Senior Center and apologized to the CoA members in attendance that “they had been dragged into this.” Degen confirmed that Petropoulos had been professional and circumspect in the emails, saying they were “clean and milky white.”
On the privacy vs. cooperation issue, Degen summed up the controversy when he said, “We, as selectmen, can respond to emails sent to us, but the town manager is responsible for town personnel. It is within our right to respond as individuals.” He went on to say that although the selectmen’s emails concerning town business are public documents, they do not have to voluntarily distribute them.
The email policy discussion is planned for the BoS meeting on March 9.