Orange group questions new hire’s contract

Benefits at issue

ORANGE — Kevin Kennedy will start work as the town’s planning and development director this month. And while no one had any questions about the selectmen’s decision to hire Kennedy, concerns were raised about the paperwork they signed to bring him on.

Kennedy, who interviewed for the position last month, has worked for the past five years as planning and development director in Thompson, Conn. He earned a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of North Carolina and a master’s in urban and regional planning from Virginia Commonwealth University.

But Kennedy’s qualifications were not the issue at last week’s board meeting.

Human Resources Board Chairwoman Linda Smith wondered why selectmen were signing a contract with him. In previous meetings, they discussed avoiding employee contracts whenever possible to give officials more flexibility in making cuts in tight budget years.

“I hope this is not going to set a precedent and we’re going to start up with contracts again,” Smith said.

Many employees and officials argued that last year’s hourly cuts to shave a half-million-dollar deficit were inequitable, as employees with union or individual contracts were spared the deep pay reductions experienced by other workers.

Selectman Kathy Reinig said the agreement with Kennedy stipulated only that he was hired “at will.” “Basically, it’s an agreement to not have a contract,” said Reinig.

According to Massachusetts law, all employees without a contract are hired at the will of the employer, without a specific end date for their employment.

She added the agreement was necessary to incorporate certain conditions that make the job more appealing, such as the inclusion of vacation time.

But Smith objected to the workaround. “I think it’s sad that our Board of Selectmen frequently ignore our own bylaws.”

Town Administrator Diana Schindler contended the town’s bylaws need to be updated to offer employees a more competitive benefits package. According to Schindler, current bylaws restrict officials from bringing highly qualified candidates on board.

Until those changes occur, she said, agreements such as the one selectmen signed with Kennedy are necessary. “We can’t stop hiring people because our bylaws aren’t competitive.”

Schindler explained an employee hired in accordance with the bylaws gets no vacation for the first year of work and only one week in the second year. By the third year, they are allowed two weeks of vacation, the amount typically offered to new hires by most employers.

Schindler advocated that employment terms should be spelled out in policies as bylaws are far more difficult to change.

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