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Conway to selectmen: What’s goin’ on?

Town officials, residents demand open government, communication

CONWAY — Several members of town committees and other concerned residents and officials crammed into the tiny selectmen’s office Monday night, demanding open government and communication from the selectmen who were said to be developing a plan for a new municipal complex without input from other town boards.

At issue was a Board of Selectmen plan — thought to be spearheaded by the Selectman Rick Bean and new Town Administrator Ed MacDonald — to build a complex on the former Greg Rose property on Shelburne Falls Road — without input from the Planning Board, the body required by law to take the lead in such land use projects, or other stakeholders of the riverfront property.

The overwhelming presence of about 30 elected and volunteer officials filling and spilling out of the office drew a stark contrast to typical selectmen’s meetings, which are usually only attended by the three board members, an administrator and a Recorder reporter.

The turnout was the result of Bean presenting the plan at last week’s Planning Board meeting.

According to draft minutes from that Thursday meeting, Bean and MacDonald toured existing municipal buildings and the former Rose property. MacDonald concluded that all town operations — the highway, ambulance, fire and police and administrative departments — be held within a single complex to be built on the 11-acre field on the east side of Shelburne Falls Road adjacent to the South River.

According to the unofficial meeting minutes, Bean indicated that an environmental engineer and architect from R. Levesque Associates in Westfield had been recommended by Ed MacDonald to do a feasibility study. MacDonald had worked with the engineers in the past in his former job in Chester. Bean then indicated that the next step would be for the selectboard to meet with the architect and engineer at Monday’s meeting. According to the minutes, “Rick presented a draft contract committing the town to this study which is to be considered at the selectboard meeting as well.” The anticipated cost for this study, Bean stated, was $12,000.

When the Planning Board asked where this money would come from, Bean said it could be obtained by drawing from some of the line-item allotments passed by the town at the last annual meeting in May.

This practice bothered the planners, including Joe Strzegowski, a former longtime selectman. The practice in Conway is to place line-item changes before the town at a special meeting, he noted.

As a result, the Planning Board, along with members of the Housing Committee and Friends of the South River, a private organization, demanded on Monday to know why their input was not sought on the proposal.

“At the Planning Board meeting, it seemed like a done deal,” Planning Board member Michael Kurkulonis said. “My concern is no one was brought in to assess the situation. No other groups were brought into the conversation.”

According to Board Chairwoman Diane Poland, when she asked MacDonald why the planners were not involved, he told her they had no statutory role in the project.

“General laws specify that the Planning Board makes proposals, draws assessments for use of town land and presents it to the selectboard,” Poland said. “My question is why weren’t we included?”

Selectmen’s Chairman John O’Rourke assured them that “anything that happens with (the town hall) will go before the Planning Board.”

He also added that, “Nothing has been signed, no engineers hired.”

Bean explained that the meeting with the engineers was to gather information and present to the town.

He said the proposal for a multi-use complex is “another approach to meet Conway’s infrastructure needs.”

Planning Board members also questioned what would have happened if they did not request to be put on the meeting agenda Monday night. Many expected the selectmen to sign a $12,000 contract with the engineers as suggested by Bean at the Planning Board meeting.

“We saw a proposed contract and place where the selectboard could sign it. What would have happened tonight?” Planning Board member David Barten asked.

“I wanted more information from (the engineers),” O’Rourke said. “Nothing would have happened tonight in terms of commitment.”

When asked by a Recorder reporter after the meeting for information about the engineers, such as a contract, Selectman Jim Moore stated he did not know of any contract. Bean, on the other hand, ignored the question and said “good night” before walking away.

In a phone interview with The Recorder on Tuesday afternoon, MacDonald confirmed that engineers from R. Levesque visited Conway in November. He said he worked with the firm in Chester.

“They were evaluating to see if it is a reasonable process to go forward,” MacDonald said, referring to whether the Greg Rose property could support a complex.

He said the engineers reviewed the town’s land for free.

Despite the selectmen’s reassurances, many in the crowd remained doubtful.

“The tone tonight is more accommodating than at the Planning Board meeting,” Joe Strzegowski said. “We got a much different impression.”

“Here’s the problem,” Malcolm Corse, a Conway resident, asserted. “We have one selectman (Rick Bean) who is new and too energetic for the town, and a lot of us don’t trust his actions.”

The residents’ and boards’ concerns also brought to light the need for more communication among the different boards in town, and for the boards to learn how they will work with a town administrator, a new position many have not dealt with.

“Several years ago, we added a town accountant,” said Lee Whitcomb of the Board of Assessors. “I asked for a job description so we’d understand how to work with the new office. On Wednesday, I begged for something to be done now because (the town administrator) is a bigger step.”

The result was for a meeting to be set up in January between stakeholders in a town hall building project and potential uses of the former Rose property. These groups include the Planning Board, the Housing Committee, the Friends of the South River, the Board of Selectmen, and the Recreation Commission. At this future meeting, the groups hope to formulate a plan moving forward with the project and to formally meet MacDonald.

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