Chilmark meeting comments stir up a tempest

The undercurrents in Chilmark rival those swirling off Lucy Vincent beach. — File photo by Susan Safford

Tempers flared and accusations flew during a tense meeting of the Chilmark selectmen Tuesday, highlighting a simmering feud between members of the human resources board (HRB) and several town officials. Recorded remarks made at a February 7 meeting of the human resource board provided the flashpoint.

The HRB, selectmen, and the beach committee have been at odds over the decision to pay for lifeguard training for longtime beach superintendent Martina Mastromonico.

The beach committee wants Ms. Mastromonaco to be certified as a lifeguard before this summer, and they want the town to pay for the courses. But the human resources board is vehemently opposed. They cite a town bylaw that they maintain prohibits the town from paying for professional development for a seasonal employee.

On February 5, selectmen voted to go against the HRB’s recommendation and pay for the training.

In response, members of the HRB threatened to resign in protest when they met two days later. According to minutes of that meeting, members discussed resigning “due to a lack of need for the board.”

Chairman Jonathan Mayhew called the Tuesday meeting in response to formal complaints that fire chief David Norton and beach committee member Wayne Iacono made against the HRB.

Members of the HRB reportedly used profanities and said disparaging things about Ms. Mastromonaco, former town accountant Emily Day and executive secretary Tim Carroll when they met on February 7.

Members of the HRB also said that Ms. Day and former town accountant Tom Wilson had been asked to perform potentially illegal accounting activities while working for the town, according to the accusations lobbed back and forth.

The use of the word “illegal” to describe the practices of Mr. Wilson and Ms. Day, who resigned from her post late last year, drew a sharp rebuke from selectman Warren Doty, who said such accusations were baseless and inflammatory.

Initially, selectmen had planned to meet with the HRB in executive session, but they later agreed to hold an open meeting. Also present Tuesday was town counsel on Rappaport.

The situation was exacerbated by an audiotape of that meeting that circulated around town and was briefly posted on the town web site.

Mr. Rappaport said he had reviewed the audiotape and did not think anything illegal had occurred.

Who put it on the Internet?

Frank LoRusso, HRB chairman, admitted he used profanities during the February 7 meeting, but he also questioned why an audio tape of the meeting was posted on the town website.

“That meeting was a closed meeting, with no members of the public,” he said. “And yes, I curse when I get frustrated, and I was frustrated by the fact that the selectmen flip-flopped their decision again about how the bylaw was being interpreted.

“But why was that tape put on the Internet? And who permitted it to be on the Internet, it was not meant for the Internet.”

Mr. Doty said the town received a request for a copy of the tape from a member of the beach committee. Because the file was so large, it could not be sent by email, so Mr. Carroll posted it on a page of the town web site, he said.

In a phone conversation with The Times, Mr. Carroll said the audiotape was only posted online temporarily so it could be accessed by the beach committee member who requested it. It was removed shortly after, he said.

According to town records, only one person — the beach committee member who requested it — accessed and downloaded the file containing the audiotape before it was taken off the town web site.

Mr. Carroll noted the audiotape is a public record and therefore accessible to anyone who requests it whether it is posted on the town web site or not.

Illegal Allegations

Mr. Doty said he listened to the first 45 minutes of the audiotape and found it had nothing to do with the beach superintendent and instead contained a lengthy discussion of former town accountants Ms. Day and Mr. Wilson.

“Over and over and over again the word illegal is used in reference to things done by the town accountant,” Mr. Doty said. “This is an absolute incorrect statement… Ms. Day was never asked to do anything illegal… She left for other reasons.

“[The tape] goes on for 45 minutes with a lot of negative comments, especially negative comments toward the executive secretary and whether we did something illegal. I completely disagreed with that discussion, it was inappropriate and it was not on the agenda,” Mr. Doty said.

Mr. Doty said the allegations of illegality stemmed from how bills were handled for the Tri-Town ambulance and how bills from the previous years were paid out.

Be civil

Mr. Rappaport gave town officials his view. “I listened to three hours and there was nothing said, in my judgment, that was libelous, slander or crossed the legal line,” he said.

Mr. Rappaport also urged officials to try and get along a little better. He said there were certain things said that were not good behavior. “I think the board should be well advised to be civil, but it doesn’t cross the line,” he said

Selectman William Rossi, who was present at the HRB meeting on February 7, said he had already discussed the need for more decorum with the HRB. “I think those discussions during that meeting were the result of years of frustration,” he said, “I probably should have stopped it and I didn’t. I discussed it with all members of the board and I am confident it will not happen again.”

Jim Malkin, a newer member of the HRB, said the board is implementing changes to refer to employees by their position, not by their names. He also said it was normal for committees to sometimes disagree.

“People on committee will disagree with each other, and committees will disagree with each other, and that is why we have forums like this to discuss these things,” he said.

But others were not so quick to forgive.

Beach committee member Wayne Iacono said he felt the HRB’s goal was to get rid of Ms. Mastromonaco, and questioned why the board was so negative towards other boards and committees. “It’s surprising to hear some members of the HRB have so little faith in the ability of some of the other town boards and employees to do their job,” he said. “Some of the HRB members are making assumptions and accusations that are not based on reality.”

Fire chief David Norton speculated that the feud between the HRB and beach committee might have started because “somebody didn’t get a job or somebody had an accusation coming off the beach. Something so simple has blown up into this — a pile of stuff that is ridiculous. It seems like school room bullies trying to force this little girl out of a job.”

Mr. LoRusso said the issue had nothing to do with Ms. Matromonaco personally. “It all starts from limiting the liability for the town, it has to do with someone who should be there to save a life when a life needs to be saved,” he said.

In the end, selectmen took no action, and they denied a request made by a member of the audience that they request members of the HRB to formally apologize to the beach committee and Ms. Mastromonaco.

“The board members have been serving for a long time and they made one indiscretion,” Mr. Rossi said. “I am not in favor of demanding a public apology. If they want to apologize privately then that’s fine.”

Selectmen later discussed the issue of Ms. Mastromonaco’s lifeguard training, and stuck to their previous decision to pay for her training but also require her to complete her certification by July of this year.

Ms. Mastromonaco said she couldn’t complete the certification before the July deadline. Although the test is in April, she said she has performed poorly in the pretest, and needs more time to work on her endurance and swimming.

“You are just going to have to fire me tonight,” Ms. Mastromonaco said. “This is the time of year when everything is happening for this department, and you have to decide who is going to get your beach together.”

Members of the beach committee urged selectmen to postpone the deadline to complete the certification until next year, but selectmen stuck to their previous decision.

“It seems like a reasonable request. I don’t think it’s outlandish,” Mr. Rossi said. “Our beach superintendent should be able to get her lifeguard certification. I think it’s fairly fundamental.”

Selectmen agreed to revisit the issue at an upcoming meeting.