COHASSET - Longtime community activist Martha K. Gjesteby was so upset with the turmoil in her local government that, two days before her 83d birthday, she decided to challenge the incumbent chairman of the Board of Selectmen. Within days, she’d collected enough signatures to get on the May 19 ballot.
Members of the elected Planning Board and Housing Authority, meanwhile, were so angry with the selectmen that both groups voted - unanimously and independently - to express their “no confidence’’ in the five-member board.
The focal point of all the ill feeling is the selectmen’s decision to fire town manager Michael Coughlin in March after only a few months on the job, and then to void more than a dozen contracts he’d signed with town employees. The controversy has divided the small coastal town, with some residents and boards - most notably the water commissioners and capital budget committee - siding with the selectmen, and others with the ousted town executive.
“This is definitely a major issue in town - not a bump in the road,’’ Housing Authority chairwoman Helen Nothnagle said last week. “People are talking.’’
Selectmen chairman Edwin “Ted’’ Carr defended his board’s actions. He said the Planning Board’s vote was “very unfortunate. I really feel it was premature to take such a public position against the Board of Selectmen without knowing the facts of the case.’’
Nothnagle said, “It was a statement [to the selectmen] that we don’t think you’re handling the situation properly. They fired him without giving him a warning; they didn’t seem to try to work with him. And the selectmen never really said why they were doing [it] until the very last minute, which was upsetting.’
Planning Board members said they took the unusual step of voting “no confidence’’ in the selectmen to show their concern for the “unfair treatment’’ of the town planning coordinator, Jo-Ann Pilczak. Her contract was among those voided by the selectmen after Coughlin’s departure and she was demoted to her former clerical position.
The “selectmen acted and continue to act in a manner that is extremely disruptive to the proper functioning of the Cohasset Planning Board,’’ the Planning Board’s motion said.
Carr said selectmen had to void 14 contracts signed by Coughlin because they either had not been properly vetted by the board, or had other problems. In addition, the budget didn’t include money to pay for the agreements, which accounted for an additional $76,000 this fiscal year and $104,000 in fiscal 2013, he said.
Plus, Carr said, one of the municipal unions had protested Pilczak’s new contract, saying it violated her existing union contract by increasing her pay and responsibilities.
While selectmen and the Planning Board disagree on the validity of Pilczak’s contract, Carr said “we agree on one matter: We care very deeply about the employee. And we are going to continue out of fairness and equity . . . to have the [interim] town manager work with each of the individuals who have had contracts canceled to reach an agreement that all parties are comfortable with.’’
As for the Housing Authority’s vote of “no confidence,’’ Carr said he understood why the group might be upset, but “it doesn’t sit great with me. If I had seen what the town was going through, I would have been the first person to stick my hand up and say, ‘How can I help?’ Not ‘Hey, you’re doing a crummy job.’ ’’
Asked for his response to the votes of “no confidence,’’ Coughlin said “it’s about time someone stood up to the [Board of Selectmen] and their horrible treatment of employees. In public service it’s the people that matter. They serve the taxpayers and all they are asking for is the stability and protection from political pressures to get the job done.’’
Coughlin, who said he will fight his dismissal in court, defended the contracts that selectmen have canceled, saying they were legal and addressed staffing inadequacies that had caused problems for the town.
Gjesteby, who was a selectwoman for nine years in the 1980s and 1990s and has also served on the School Committee, Planning Board, and numerous other boards, said she decided to run again after she failed to find someone else to do it.
“I’m running because I’m concerned about what’s been going on the last six months or so,’’ she said. “I just feel there’s too much turbulence. We might have had issues before, but never for such an extended period of time. I hope that this upheaval we have doesn’t split the town.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.