Cohasset selectmen sailed through their agenda last week free of tension and controversy. That was news.
Meeting for the first time since last weekend’s election, the Board of Selectmen chose its leaders and will next tackle the search for a new town manager.
“I had a number of calls from residents who said they thought it was very visible that the tenor of the board had changed; somebody mentioned the word collegiality,” said newly elected Selectwoman Karen Quigley.
The new board “has strong opinions, but there seems to be a willingness to listen to both sides and move to consensus,” said longtime member Fred Koed, who was elected chairman. “My challenge will be to point out the common ground, keep people focused, and try to build consensus so we move forward without any hard feelings.
“I’m going to work on making sure the board maintains relationships and is not taking things personally. It’s not personal, it’s politics,” he added.
The tone was in sharp contrast to many meetings in recent years, when the Board of Selectmen fired a town manager and a police chief, went after anonymous bloggers, and accused one of its own — 84-year-old Martha Gjesteby – with conflict of interest. She, in turn, accused her colleagues of violating the Open Meeting Law.
Things got so rough that, in 2012, the board passed a “Code of Core Values for Civil Discourse” to try to keep discussions cordial among town employees and officials.
But the composition of the board underwent a substantial change with the election of two new selectmen: Stephen Gaumer, who got 906 votes, and Quigley, with 805 votes, in a four-way race for two seats. Gaumer has been chairman of the town’s Capital Budget Committee and Quigley is a former selectwoman.
J. Russell Bonetti finished third, with 801 votes, and incumbent selectman Leland Jenkins was last, with 750. Paul Carlson, the former chairman of the board, did not run for reelection.
The majority of the new five-person board is female – Quigley, Gjesteby, and Diane Kennedy. “Hopefully, it will be a shift for the better,” Koed said.
A selectman for the past 14 years, Koed said boards go through periods where there is conflict, and the last few years “was one of those cycles where things could get tense.”
Based on just the May 13 meeting, efficiency appears likely to improve. The new board unanimously chose Koed as chairman, Kennedy as vice chairwoman, and named Gjesteby to a new position of secretary. The board rejected a suggestion from Acting Town Manager Michael Milanoski that it appoint a treasurer to act as point person on financial matters, deciding instead that the full board would become more involved in fiscal issues.
The board also decided to set a time to discuss its goals for the year and to have more frequent but shorter meetings.
“I thought the board was rather ebullient,” said Gjesteby. “Everyone seemed very enthusiastic. Every vote we had was 5 to 0. And we started at 7 [p.m.] and were through at 8:20. It was a good start.”
Topping the agenda for its next meeting, on May 28, is discussion of a search for a new permanent town manager. Selectmen fired the last permanent manager, Michael Coughlin, in March 2012, after less than six months on the job. Coughlin is suing to get the job back.
(Coughlin became an issue late in this month’s election campaign when signs appeared linking him to Quigley. She complained to police that the signs were not hers, but said she doesn’t plan to pursue the matter. “It’s time for the town to move past this negativity,” she said.)
After Coughlin’s departure, Milanoski stepped in, initially as a volunteer. Milanoski, a Cohasset resident who chaired the search committee that found Coughlin, now has a contract as acting town manager through the end of 2013, or until the town hires a permanent town manager. He did not say last week whether he would apply for the $150,000-a-year job.
Town Meeting voted this spring to change the qualifications for the town manager position, removing language that excluded anyone who had held an appointed or elected position in town in the past year. Instead, only selectmen would be barred. The change still needs approval by the state Legislature.
“Right now, [Milanoski] is ineligible until the legislation passes,” Koed said. “Nobody knows the timetable on that, so it’s complicated.
“Nobody is going to stop anybody from applying,” he added. But “if [Milanoski] decides to move on in his career, we’d like to see a smooth off-ramp for him and a smooth on-ramp for the next person.”
“I look forward to listening to the Board of Selectmen discuss their objectives, what they want in the long-term interest of the town with this new position, what they want to improve, and look forward to our continued professional working relationship,” Milanoski said in an e-mail. “My job is to work with whomever is elected to be on the Board of Selectmen in the best interest of the town.”