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June 19. 2012 10:58PM

Windham selectmen overturn community planner's suspension

WINDHAM — Developers, engineers and town officials stepped forward to defend Community Planner Elizabeth Wood against disciplinary action brought by her department head.

Selectmen reduced a two-day, unpaid suspension to a written reprimand after a four-hour appeal on Monday night. The board had upheld a one-day suspension under similar circumstances in January.

The latest suspension was explained in a five-page memo from Community Development Director Laura Scott accusing Wood of unsatisfactory job performance and a lack of understanding of policy and regulatory procedures.

“I stand before you once again forced to defend my reputation against false accusations about the quantity and quality of my work,” Wood said.

Wood submitted a performance review from last winter that rated her performance above average. She accepted blame for many things due to her good nature and a desire to work with Scott, Wood said, but added that most of the accusations are exaggerated or simply untrue.

Four specific instances dealt with Wood’s handling of a junkyard certificate approval application, the Cricket Ridge work force housing subdivision application, a small wind energy application, and confusion surrounding a resident’s request to be added to the agenda for a Planning Board meeting to discuss the Canobie Lake/Cobbetts Pond Watershed Protection Ordinance. Wood brought witnesses to speak on her behalf for three of the four cases.

In the junkyard certificate application, Scott claimed Wood was “unprepared and without paperwork” when she met with applicant Patrick Lynch.

“I wanted to make sure the applicant was aware of all the material so he could make an informed decision,” Scott said.

Wood answered that she worked with the applicant for two years and provided all paperwork, leading him through the process in steps. Dennis Root, a friend of Lynch, said he attended all the meetings and testified that the process was overwhelming but Wood was knowledgeable.

“As far as the whole deal, I think that Elizabeth did a great job,” Root said.

Much of the testimony involved Wood’s handling of the Cricket Ridge application, which is still before the Planning Board. Scott claimed Wood provided incorrect information to the board and failed to document important information.

Planning Board Chairman Margaret Crisler backed Wood’s version of events.

Crisler returned later to speak on Wood’s behalf in the Canobie Lake Ordinance confusion. She suggested that Scott might just be an inexperienced department head.

“I think it might behoove the town to provide a little more training in managing the staff,” Crisler said.

Karl Dubay, the engineer for Cricket Ridge, said he was uncomfortable with becoming involved in politics but agreed to speak. He has been appearing before boards in town for about 17 years, Dubay said.

“I think my reputation is to be a straight shooter and to be accurate,” Dubay said.

Scott’s paragraph about Wood’s mishandling of the waiver requests was simply incorrect, Dubay said. Wood supplied the required information, Dubay said, suggesting there must have been a miscommunication between Wood and Scott.

Both women do an excellent job, Dubay said.

“In all fairness, I believe she is competent, and I believe the process would work better if they could work together as a team,” Dubay said.

Robert Pliskin, developer of the Cricket Ridge project, was more direct. Wood took over the application a year and a half into the process and has been attentive and professional, he said. The project has run smoothly since Wood came on board, he said.

“The first year and a half was nothing but confusion, conflict, misdirection and incompetence,” Pliskin said.

Alan Carpenter worked with the Community Development Department on the wind project and had nothing but praise for the staff. However, he asked the board to look into the turnover rate in the department.

“You do have major issues on the other side of that door,” Carpenter said.

Selectmen also seemed to have a problem with the situation and the apparent lack of teamwork in the Community Development Office.

Selectman Kathleen DiFruscia had issues with parts of Wood’s performance but also with an atmosphere where employees act as individuals rather than a team there to serve the public.

“I cannot support the disciplinary action recommended by Ms. Scott,” DiFruscia said. “It has not been borne out by the testimony that I heard here tonight.”

Selectman Ross McLeod found the witness testimony held more weight than Scott’s memo, especially regarding Cricket Ridge.

“When I wade through what happened with Cricket Ridge, it strikes me as petty and vindictive,” McLeod said.

He pointed to Scott’s written statements — “I was not going to do your job for you” and “I finally did give you a hint on where to find this information” — as the crux of the problem.

“I think this is a deplorable waste of our time,” McLeod said. “I just find it wholly without merit.”

Selectman Roger Hohenberger said the testimony shows that Wood is a good employee that communicates well with the public, but some of her actions in the Canobie Lake ordinance confusion and a slow response to an abutter may warrant some disciplinary action. He recommended reducing the two-day suspension to a written reprimand.

Selectman Phil Lochiatto agreed there were some valid issues and made a motion to reduce the suspension to a written reprimand. Hohenberger seconded it.

The written reprimand passed, 3-2, with McLeod and DiFruscia voting against.

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Julie Hanson may be reached at Jhanson@newstote.com.


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