Report details frustrations within Windham Public Works Department

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WINDHAM — A recently concluded third-party review found a need for more leadership, communication, accountability and trust within the Windham Public Works Department.

According to the report compiled by outside consultant William O’Brien, public works employees reported: “stress,” “negative attitudes,” “tension and distrust,” “animosity,” “drama” and “conflict in the department” as some of the things they liked least about their work.

The report also detailed confusion about management roles and responsibilities and states that the department appears to run in three silos separating the Highway Maintenance, Vehicle Maintenance, and Buildings and Grounds crews.

O’Brien’s review was initiated after concerns about the department, including its leadership, were raised in late February.

O’Brien said in the report that he met individually with all 27 public works employees, including Director Doug Fortier, in two sets of interviews at town hall on March 1 and March 7.

“Given the current state of the department, it is vital that a plan be immediately developed to address the issues that exist,” O’Brien offers as some of his final thoughts in the report. “The Public Works employees who invested their time to share their views will want to know what resulted from this study and what steps will ensue. They deserve to know how the department will go about the task of rebuilding a healthy environment.”

The final report also includes a corrective action plan, which outlines various steps attempting to deal with the leadership, communication, accountability, trust, and morale issues. Immediate steps listed in the plan include having Fortier and other department management “lead by example,” establish and maintain open lines of communication, and having the entire department “commit to an atmosphere of respect, collaboration, openness, safety, and equality.”

Town Manager Tony Plante stressed in an email last week that the action plan is in an initial phase and the town will be engaging the department regarding possible additional steps.

“It’s an ‘initial’ plan because we will be asking for input from the department as to what other steps they think should be taken,” Plante said April 4. “We expect to have occasional follow-up progress meetings on this specifically, but also to incorporate the principles and recommendations about how things are done in addition to what things are done.”

Lorne Smith, who said he was speaking in his capacity as a Teamsters representative for the public works employees, found the report’s results unsurprising but took issue with Plante’s role in engaging O’Brien to conduct the review.

“We believe that this should have been conducted by Council as Tony Plante is actually part of the ongoing problem,” Smith said in an email last week.

In an email this week, Plante said that he briefed the council about steps he intended to take before the review started, was interviewed by O’Brien on March 12, and has a responsibility to help address the things identified in the report.

“I also have to be willing to accept some share of the responsibility, and I have. The corrective action plan, as I explained when I shared it with the department last week, is a starting point. We want to hear from them about other ways we can all work together better,” Plante said. “Much of the responsibility for addressing the issues lies with the public works director, but not all of it. Departmental employees also have to want things to improve and to do their part.”

Town Councilor Tim Nangle said in an interview Tuesday night that he felt Plante took appropriate steps in initiating the third-party review.

“In this case, I don’t believe we have to direct the manager. I think he’s doing it,” Nangle said, adding that he wants to see the report’s recommendations implemented first, “and see where things go after that.”

“You can read the report — there’s no bias in there,” Nangle said, noting that the council hadn’t yet had a discussion about the report released last week.

A central issue of concern for Smith, and one that is referenced in the report, is the situation involving Highway Maintenance Supervisor Mike Constantine, who was initially terminated then reinstated after arbitration.

“For sure, the past two years have been difficult for those in [highway maintenance],” said O’Brien in the report. “The termination of the Highway Maintenance supervisor, appointment of an interim ‘acting supervisor,’ a contentious arbitration process, and reinstatement of the previously-dismissed supervisor have understandably taken their toll.”

“Since it has only been a few months since the supervisor’s return, raw nerves are still close to the surface and the remnants of that painful process are very much evident,” the report continues.

Smith alleges that Fortier was not honest when under oath during the arbitration process involving Constantine.

“That is incorrect — I was truthful,” said Fortier when asked about Smith’s assertion.

“In closing, we will wait to see what Council does with the report,” Smith continued about O’Brien’s work. “But we do not accept the way in which this is being handled. The report confirmed the problem and we expect The Council to now get involved and deal with the Manager and the Director. We are spending lots of time and money on an issue that should have already been dealt with.”

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

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