August snow squall hits E. Bridgewater
Officials clash on winter contract
EAST BRIDGEWATER - Just before last Monday’s selectmen’s meeting in East Bridgewater, board chairman Joseph Miksch expressed hope that the months-long drama over the hiring of a contractor to clear snow off school roofs last winter could be put to rest, now that two independent investigations were finished and their results under review by the town’s attorney.
Neither Miksch nor his colleagues planned to raise the matter that evening.
But about 30 minutes later, a shouting match between Selectman Robert Condon and Town Administrator George Samia over the snow shoveling issue abruptly shut the session down, giving everyone in attendance and local cable television viewers a disturbing look at their top officials brawling publicly.
“It’s incredibly sad the town is in this condition where officials are fighting each other,’’ said resident Judith Heger, as she left Town Hall.
The past six months have been anything but politics as usual in this rural community of 14,000 since the February hiring of Bridgewater contractor Brian Healey to shovel off school roofs. At the time, a number of roofs in the area were collapsing under the weight of snow. Local officials rushed to clear school roofs but failed to gather price quotes prior to Healey’s hiring or provide a written contract for the work, both required under state procurement laws.
Healey’s $53,000 bill for the shoveling angered many in town, and the contractor eventually agreed to lower the charge to $45,000.
Just who hired Healey without obtaining price quotes has been the subject of three separate investigations: two contracted by the town and completed last week, and one still underway by the state Inspector General’s office.
Two high-ranking local officials have been in the hot seat: Fire Chief Ryon Pratt and School Superintendent Susan Cote.
Pratt has consistently maintained he acted as an adviser in the snow-shoveling decision, while Cote did the hiring. Cote has pointed the finger at Pratt for the hiring, but conceded to selectmen she should share the responsibility for not following proper protocol as the School Department’s top official.
The two recently released investigative reports - produced independently by town attorney Kevin Feeley and Lowell attorney Charles Zaroulis - conclude that both Pratt and Cote violated procurement laws, but the evidence indicates they probably did so unintentionally. Cote owned up to the mistake, investigators note, while Pratt persisted in claiming no involvement. Both reports conclude, based on evidence provided, that Pratt hired the contractor.
Pratt, on sick leave since June 9, attended last Monday’s selectmen’s meeting and read a statement during the public forum, in which he complained of being already “tried and convicted in the court of public opinion’’ and now in the two investigations. The chief produced an e-mail written by the school superintendent in late January that he said proved she hired Healey days before he entered the shoveling discussion. Pratt questioned why the document had not been provided to investigators.
“Why would high-ranking public officials, town counsel, and the town administrator use incomplete information and ruin a 30-year career?’’ Pratt said, referring to himself. “It is so unfortunate that leaders in this community put me in a place where I would have to do this.’’
Condon then publicly pressed the town administrator as to why “relevant’’ information had not reached investigators. Samia responded he didn’t like Condon’s insinuation that he was at fault. As the exchange escalated, selectmen closed the meeting.
Afterward, Condon defended his position.
“There was critical information available in the e-mail system and the town administrator failed to capture that information,’’ he said. “We have an obligation to treat our employees with respect. The chief has 30 years on the line.’’
Selectman Brian Connors, calling Condon’s on-camera comments “a political rant,’’ said Pratt’s information added nothing that wasn’t already discussed, in his opinion.
“Chief Pratt’s statement was a last-ditch effort,’’ Connors said. “The investigators’ reports have been filed, and it’s time to move forward. We don’t need to start to reintroduce material.’’
The town attorney will suggest the next step, Connors said, which could be to hire an independent hearing officer to oversee discussion of whether disciplinary steps are warranted.
“I would want it done as quickly as possible without rushing it, so all department heads are treated fairly,’’ he said.
Planning Board member Steven Belcher, who said he was “embarrassed’’ by the exchange of town officials Monday night, expressed confidence tempers will eventually cool.
Belcher recalled past rough spots, such as the local battling over the town’s landfill 35 years ago.
“I’ve seen things almost come to blows,’’ he said. “Politics are not always pretty.’’
Fred Chapman, a longtime resident and current member of the library trustees, said most people in town thought the shoveling issue was done with. He said he hoped officials will look at “the overall picture’’ before doling out punishment. The appropriate action, he said, would be to put a solid procurement process in place to avoid future missteps.
“I would describe East Bridgewater as a plain, unpretentious town,’’ Chapman said. “It’s a good community.’’
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.