DPW, Tisbury selectmen at odds
Charge selectman Pachico abuses DPW director
Upset by the treatment of their department head by Tisbury selectman Tom Pachico, the Tisbury department of public works (DPW) commissioners recently instructed director Fred LaPiana not to attend meetings of the Tisbury selectmen unless he is on the agenda to answer questions on specific topics.
The commissioners' decision was the latest twist in the deteriorating working relationship between Mr. Pachico, who is also employed by the town as health agent, and Mr. LaPiana. DPW commissioner John Thayer characterized Mr. Pachico's treatment of Mr. LaPiana as bullying and personally abusive.
In comments this week to The Times, Mr. Pachico defended his approach and said that as a selectman he gets calls from town residents all the time and had grown increasingly frustrated with what he described as DPW shortcomings. He said he had no apologies to make.
Mr. LaPiana did not attend the last two meetings of the Tisbury selectmen. At the Sept. 19 selectmen's meeting, Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee noted Mr. LaPiana's absence, and said he had heard Mr. LaPiana might not be attending future meetings, as well. Following the meeting Mr. Bugbee called Mr. LaPiana to ask about his absence and was informed of the DPW commissioners' decision, which had been made during their board meeting on August 28.
The DPW operates independently under its own charter. Mr. LaPiana had regularly attended the bi-weekly selectmen meetings to give a department report.
At the Sept. 19 selectmen's meeting, chairman Tristan Israel instructed Mr. Bugbee to write a letter to Mr. LaPiana telling him the selectmen would appreciate his presence at their meetings. "It's vital we keep communication open, whether we agree or not," Mr. Israel said.
In a letter dated Sept. 25, Mr. Bugbee requested the minutes of the meeting at which the commissioners made the decision that Mr. LaPiana no longer attend the selectmen meetings. He also highlighted the meeting's importance as a "venue for department heads to communicate their current operations in hopes that they may be better prepared for what may affect one another in the future."
Additionally, Mr. Bugbee said that because the meetings are televised, the DPW could inform the public about current projects. Stressing the importance of participation by all town department heads, he asked Mr. LaPiana to please reconsider his decision to no longer attend the meetings.
On Monday, Mr. LaPiana said that while the DPW commissioners made their decision based partly on Mr. Pachico's behavior, they also were trying to help Mr. LaPiana schedule the use of his time more effectively.
"In essence, we are trying to effect better communication between the department of public works and the board of selectmen by being prepared to respond to their questions on specific topics," Mr. LaPiana said. He pointed out that other town boards do not send representatives to every selectmen's meeting unless they have something specific to discuss.
Sharp divisions between the DPW commissioners and Mr. Pachico surfaced during several meetings held this summer to discuss the Water Street parking lot reconstruction.
Mr. LaPiana proposed that the town turn the project over to the DPW, which would act as the general contractor and subcontract the work out. He said this approach would save the town money by not having to pay someone else to do the same thing. He also advocated putting the utilities underground.
Mr. Pachico wanted to put the project out to bid as a package and was opposed to the added expense for underground utilities. According to DPW board chairman Fred Thifault, Mr. Pachico said he would take care of the project and did not want the DPW board to have any part of it.
At a joint meeting of both boards on July 24 to hash out the parking lot issues Mr. Israel left early and turned the gavel over to Mr. Pachico, who used the occasion to criticize Mr. LaPiana's leadership and the efficiency of the DPW itself.
Mr. Pachico held up a stack of photographs depicting problem areas around Tisbury he said were not being maintained or addressed, such as clogged basins and storm drains, brush around a parking sign, and grading at the Tisbury town annex parking lot.
Mr. LaPiana was caught off-guard by Mr. Pachico's criticisms of the DPW, as were the commissioners. During one heated exchanged, Mr. Pachico and DPW commissioner John Thayer reportedly shouted at one another.
As a result, the DPW commissioners instructed Mr. LaPiana not to take part in any more discussions about the parking lot until issues between them and the selectmen were resolved.
No punching bag
On Monday night, Mr. Israel decided to attend the regularly scheduled DPW board meeting and try his hand at mending fences.
"Fred communicated that your board voted he not attend our meetings unless there is a specific issue," Mr. Israel told the commissioners. "I'm urging that we let the dust settle and Fred continue to attend as he wishes."
Mr. Israel said he was not going to defend Mr. Pachico's actions or apologize for his behavior at the July meeting, although he did think that Mr. Pachico had the right to his own opinions. "I come hat in hand," Mr. Israel said. "I want to have communication. I'm just trying to pick up the pieces here."
DPW board chairman Fred Thifault was not mollified. "You've lost our support because of the incident that happened at the last meeting," he said. "It was a political, put-up job, and I resent it."
Mr. Thifault also told Mr. Israel, "I think the board of selectmen are wanting control over the DPW." Mr. Israel admitted that he does not like the way the process works between the two boards and how the DPW department is set up.
"I think structurally, there's a real problem. Whether I like the set-up or not is irrelevant," Mr. Israel said. "You are an important cog in town, as we are. If we aren't communicating, we're in trouble."
Characterizing the July meeting as "brutal," DPW commissioner John Thayer told Mr. Israel, "Tom [Pachico] was in the biggest, bullying mood, and came across as speaking for the board."
Mr. Israel assured the commissioners Mr. Pachico's remarks were his own and did not represent those of the selectmen board.
Mr. Thayer explained the rationale behind the DPW commissioners' decision to limit Mr. LaPiana's attendance at the selectmen's meetings. "Fred [LaPiana] coming to the selectmen's meetings is a courtesy, and he will always attend your meetings whenever we have an issue to discuss," he said.
"After the way Tommy [Pachico] treated this board and Fred that night, I was reluctant to set Fred up to be Tommy's punching bag for a while."
"That courtesy is withdrawn if Tommy's coming to this board with that attitude," Mr. Thayer added. "If somebody has a complaint about Fred or the backlog of work, that's an ongoing topic we're always looking at."
Mr. Israel pointed out that the courtesy of Mr. LaPiana's attendance at the selectmen's meetings benefits the town. "If we lose Fred at the meetings, that's a lost opportunity for the boards to communicate," he said.
Mr. Thayer advised him, "You have to figure out how not to let a guy like that [Mr. Pachico] take over your board. The behavior was not acceptable, and he was totally discourteous."
Mr. Thayer did agree with Mr. Israel that the issue needed to be resolved. "If you need Fred at a meeting, you can make a request," he told him. "Right now, we're a little leery to send him."
In conclusion, Mr. Israel said he hoped the commissioners and selectmen could continue to work together.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Pachico said the DPW board's decision not to attend selectmen's meetings was related to money and control and not his behavior. "They decided because we wouldn't hand the checkbook over on the Water Street parking lot, they wouldn't attend our meetings," he said.
Mr. Pachico said he gets calls all the time from town residents and is frustrated by what he sees as a fractured process for handling their complaints through the DPW. "It doesn't work well," Mr. Pachico said. "It's supposed to be the selectmen running the town. We're the owners of the house, and DPW commissioners are the contractors. I'd just like to see the projects get done."
Mr. Pachico said that he was sorry the discussion at the July meeting got heated, but he was not sorry for what he said. "I think it's a damn shame they decide not to send someone to a meeting because I'm picking on someone," he said. "If I'm pointing out something obvious that's wrong in town and that's picking on someone, so be it."