Consultant to assess Windham Public Works Department

Lorne Smith, at the podium, said he is a Teamsters representative for Windham public works employees while addressing the Windham Town Council Tuesday night.

WINDHAM — The town is bringing in an outside management consultant to review Windham Public Works after some concerns have been raised about the department, including its leadership.

Town Manager Tony Plante said after the Feb. 27 Town Council meeting that the town has enlisted the services of consultant Bill O’Brien to do an evaluation of the department.

Plante said that he met with the entire public works staff on Tuesday and that members of the group raised “general concerns about the department” along with concerns related to public works leadership.

According to Plante, O’Brien will be interviewing the department staff to “get a third party perspective.”

“What we’re focused on is identifying any issues or problems that may be present in the public works department, and to develop recommendations for resolving those,” Plante told the council during the meeting.

Lorne Smith addressed the council Tuesday night and noted that he is a Teamsters representative for the public works department.

Smith alleged afterward that there is a “leadership problem at public works” and  that there is “fear and intimidation” within the department.

Several members of the public works department were present at the meeting Tuesday night, as was Public Works Director Doug Fortier, who sat on the other side of the audience.

While the public works employees didn’t speak during the public comment section, several residents did. They expressed frustration with department leadership.

Afterwards, Fortier mostly declined to comment on remarks made at the meeting or the situation generally, saying that the situation was a personnel issue that he couldn’t address publicly at this time.

When asked if he envisioned a time when he could comment more on the situation, Fortier, who said he has been part of the department for 25 years and director for 14, responded, “I would hope so.”

During the meeting, several councilors referenced a provision within the town charter that limits direct communication between councilors and town staff.

The town charter says that “except for the purpose of inquiry, the Council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the Manager and neither the Council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of the Manager, either publicly or privately.”

Councilor Dennis Welch said that he would like to add a discussion of that provision to a future council agenda.

“This policy about town employees not talking to the council members, I don’t like it. And I’m going to bring it up to see if we can get rid of it,” Welch said. “They’re not just employees, but most of them live in this town, and they should have a right to talk to their elected officials.”

Councilor Clayton Haskell said he appreciated the public works employees attending the meeting Tuesday night.

“I would like to thank the public works people for coming in tonight — it was greatly appreciated. I would like to hear from some of the public works people,” Haskell said. “But, I know we’re already gone through that process now. But rest assured, it will come to a head and it will get taken care of some way. Believe me.”

Haskell also went outside the town hall during a council break and spoke briefly with the group of public works employees.

Plante said he told the public works employees that “this is not the first time that we’ve had to bring somebody in who is not part of the town, to take an objective look at what is going on or not going on,” adding that “it’s not normal.”

He said that “it took a couple weeks to work out the details” of the third party review and that the effort will seek to “dig in and find out what’s going on.”

Matt Junker can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @MattJunker.

Lorne Smith, at the podium, said he is a Teamsters representative for Windham public works employees while addressing the Windham Town Council Tuesday night.