By Angeljean Chiaramida
---- — SEABROOK — Claiming the town needs to significantly improve its level of “transparency” in government, a selectman last week apologized for past mistakes and vowed to do better.
During a meeting Friday to discuss the selection of the next town manager, Selectman Aboul Khan admitted that on a scale of one (low) to 100 (high), Seabrook’s level of transparency sits at “about a 20.”
“We hide behind things all the time,” Khan said.
The comment came after selectman candidate Eric Small questioned the board on whether it had ever discussed picking the next town manager in non-public session. Interim Town Manager Joe Titone announced last week he is not interested in the position permanently and wants to return to serving the town exclusively as its emergency management director.
Although Selectman Brendan Kelly denied Small’s assertion, Khan admitted it had happened and Selectman Ed Hess eventually agreed.
Hess said the issue of hiring a new manager had been discussed casually with Titone, perhaps at the end of closed, or executive, sessions. But no votes were taken or decisions made, Hess said.
During Friday’s at times heated meeting, Khan acknowledged having made mistakes in violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law, but vowed to correct his behavior in the future.
Khan blamed slip-ups on the fact that selectmen all have desks in the same room, where they gather and catch up on town business and written correspondence. That arrangement has resulted in “chance meetings” and the line being crossed, Khan said.
Both Kelly, who is running for re-election, and Hess took issue with Khan’s evaluation of the degree of secret discussions among them.
“I’ve tried to accommodate others and I know we don’t always see things the same way,” Kelly said after the meeting. “In the past, I’ve ignored things, because none of us are perfect. But I’m not the problem. I’m very open. Have I ever made a mistake? Absolutely, I’m made a lot of them, but I’ve never woken up and felt I have betrayed the people of this town.”
Kelly said he’ll research more thoroughly the Open Meeting Law so violations don’t happen, even by accident, in the future.
At the meeting, Kelly and Hess approved a motion to hire a professional recruitment firm to conduct the search for the new town manager and to start looking for the right recruiter immediately.
Khan voted against the motion, saying that in addition to the recruiter, he wanted a search committee consisting of other elected officials: the tax collector, town clerk, treasurer and the chairpeople of both the Budget Committee and Planning Board.
Khan said the search committee could cull the candidates, then send the top five or six to selectmen, who would make the final choice. He added that having more people involved in the selection process would improve the level of transparency in choosing the next town manager.
But Khan’s motion for a recruiter/search committee combo failed to garner a second and died, as did Kelly’s motion to skip spending the money for a recruiter altogether and for selectmen to handle the search themselves.
Khan implied Kelly didn’t want a recruiting firm because he might have a candidate in mind already, but Kelly denied it.
After the meeting, Kelly said he believes the comments made at the meeting by Small and perhaps others could have been intended to harm his bid for re-election.
“It was a very, very tough day,” Kelly said. “I was very upset about those accusations.”
Small urged selectmen to hold off on the town manager search until after the election, which is about five weeks away. He said the new Board of Selectmen will be the one working with the town manager, so it wouldn’t hurt to wait a few weeks until the board was in place.
Hess and Kelly disagreed, and Khan’s motion to postpone the search until after the election failed to get a second.
Regardless of how or when the search is conducted, the selectmen’s decision to hold a formal search for the next town manager ends speculation in town that the majority of the board intended to hire Titone permanently without a search. Formal searches have customarily been held in the past when new town managers were needed.
Kelly said he called Friday’s meeting after Titone said early last week that he wasn’t interested in staying on permanently.
Titone was hired in June 2012 to take over on an interim basis after former town manager Barry Brennan was suddenly placed on administrative leave. Brennan and the town eventually signed a separation agreement, which included a more than $120,000 settlement in Brennan’s favor.
All three selectmen praised Titone’s work over the past months, saying he did a great job and performed “some heavy lifting” on the town’s behalf.
After the meeting, Titone said although he’s enjoyed his experience as town manager, he preferred to simply go back to being emergency management director and let someone else take over for the long haul.