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What happens when one town employee has too much power? It doesn’t go well, probe into Monterey's long civic conflict finds

monterey town hall (copy)

Monterey Town Hall, where political unrest of late has rattled the town. 

MONTEREY — Investigators hired last year to probe complaints at Town Hall found Monterey's town administrator central to most conflicts, engaging in a misuse of power through “a pattern of conduct” that is retaliatory and manipulative — findings she strongly denies.

The summary report by lead investigator Corinne Hood Greene, of Greene & Hafer Employment Law, also found “a failure of leadership” by Select Board members and a breakdown between the board and Town Administrator Melissa Noe. 

Though it was provided to the town over a month ago, Greene’s March 17 report, a copy of which was obtained by The Eagle, has gone nowhere fast.

The Select Board has not held a closed-door session to take action with town employees and officials. It might discuss doing so Tuesday, when it will also talk about why Greene’s bill is now over estimates by $5,140. These new charges drive the total cost of the investigation to $21,140.

A few things are contributing to the stall.

Noe’s attorney, in a point-by-point rebuttal letter, said Greene’s report is “flawed and unreliable,” and told her it should be revised and that the Select Board should not accept the findings until it is corrected.

Select Board Chairman Steven Weisz is dismissing the report as one opinion. He says “the town needs to move on” and heal, and formally close the investigation and not accept the report as “fact.”

The other two board members disagree. John Weingold and Justin Makuc want to follow the attorney’s advice and hold individual meetings with those named in the report and decide what action — if any — to take.

Weingold and Makuc have tried to schedule closed-door meetings and say Weisz has blocked them.

The town’s regular lawyer apparently isn’t pleased — he plans to quit.

In light of the board’s conflict over how to handle the report, attorney Brian Maser, of KP Law, announced he is dropping the town after annual town meeting, which is Saturday.

Roots of conflict

The upheaval began last summer, but stems from more than a decade of conflict in town government. The troubles sped forward after an incident between Noe and Town Clerk Terry Walker, and Walker’s subsequent complaint against Noe.

This snowballed into more complaints against Noe and others, including Weisz, Weingold and former board member Donald Coburn, for reportedly trying to coerce Walker to drop her harassment complaint. Noe filed three complaints, including accusing Walker of false statements, and board member Weingold of creating a hostile work environment.

Board member Justin Makuc filed four complaints against Noe, claiming she used her position to influence the investigation into complaints regarding her performance and behavior.

justin makuc (copy)

Monterey Select Board member Justin Makuc speaks to a large crowd gathered for a special Town Meeting at the Monterey Pavilion last year.

Out of 18 complaints, 13 were filed against Noe.

Voters last year approved spending the money to hire an investigator, as the number of complaints climbed. Greene said that tribalism among “witnesses” in town for or against Noe “expanded the scope of our investigation unreasonably.”

‘What is the town prepared to do?’

In the report, Greene wrote that Noe’s wide range of involvement in town affairs — as well as protective provisions in her contract — puts the town in legal and financial jeopardy.

By “relying on Noe to do their jobs,” as one town employee told investigators, the board over the years had relinquished too much authority to Noe, giving her oversight of herself and others.

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While there might be cause to fire Noe, the investigators said, they do not recommend it, given an employment contract that entitles Noe to significant extended benefits and severance.

Instead, Greene’s team, asking “what is the Town prepared to do” about all the behavior, said the board should take immediate action to resolve the complaints, undergo leadership training and professional mediation, as well as create a Code of Conduct. They also say Noe should no longer be in charge of taking Select Board meeting minutes or fielding public records requests to the town. All of those recommendations — except changing who provides public records — is in the works, Weisz said in an email.

“The most effective action the SB could take relative to Noe’s employment would be to better and more narrowly define the Town Administrator role,” Greene wrote.

Noe, who has worked for the town for 15 years, says the integrity of the findings are shaky at best. In a written statement in response to questions, Noe called the report “replete with inaccuracies."

“One of the largest being that those accused and those that witnessed events were never afforded the chance to be interviewed and defend themselves or contribute testimony that would have corroborated facts pertaining to some of the alleged incidents,” Noe said in an email.

Monterey Town Administrator Melissa Noe's attorney responds to Greene & Hafer's investigation report

“I have no power,” she added, in response to the finding about her authority. The board governs policy and procedure, she said.

Before the wave of complaints came, Noe said she had planned workshops and team-building events “to improve communication, efficiency and productivity,” and she hopes to still do this. She believes the board should close the investigation and let everyone get back to work.

“So we can all move on without it looming over everyone’s heads,” she said. The leak of of Greene’s report to the press, she said, will “further stoke a hostile environment that continues to lower morale.”

Noe criticized the board for its handling of the entire situation. She said a probe into Walker's past employment history shows she has stirred discord in other workplaces — something Walker has denied and views as a threat. In her report, Greene says digging into Walker's past was an attempt by Noe and others — including former board member Donald Coburn — to discredit Walker. 

Board now in limbo

The board is now in limbo after a dramatic, two-hour-plus board meeting Wednesday, in which Noe’s attorney, Christopher Hennessey, was present on her behalf, but not Maser, the KP Law attorney. Weisz later said Maser's absence was due to a scheduling conflict.

Makuc, the board member, refused to vote to end the investigation, despite repeated attempts by Weisz, and refused to budge in his request that Maser be involved in that decision.

“I just want to speak with [town] counsel,” he said repeatedly, growing frustrated with what he said appeared to be Weisz’s rush to close the investigation. “I want to make sure that we’re doing the right thing and that’s that, and I don’t want to entertain any more motions.”

Makuc said the board should “confront the issues that we face head on, instead of just trying to move on from them.”

At the meeting, some residents said they didn’t care about the investigation; they just want an end to feuding that has gripped the town.

steven weisz speaks at monterey town meeting (copy) (copy)

Monterey Select Board Chairman Steven Weisz speaking at annual town meeting last fall, flanked by board members, Justin Makuc, left, and John Weingold, right. 

Others said the only way to build trust is to have the report openly and fully considered and acted upon, and complaints properly resolved, as Makuc suggested.

Makuc delivered to the board a proposed “Final Written Warning” for Noe about what Greene said was her pattern of “retaliation, intimidation and coercion,” to be signed by all three board members.

Makuc alone signed it. Weisz refused, saying it would “single out one employee.” He went on to praise Noe for her commitment to the town over the years. Weisz, who did not run for reelection and whose term is up in two weeks, went on to say that “everybody makes mistakes,” and attributed the conflict, in part, to small town dynamics.

Board member Weingold sat last week's meeting out — as he has many others. When asked why, he told The Eagle he was outraged by the delay in taking action on the report’s findings.

Weingold said he and Makuc voted April 6 to hold a closed-door session on April 13, but Weisz never posted the notice and did not advise Noe to attend the meeting — something Weingold eventually did himself through the sheriff.

Weisz later said he is “extremely disappointed with this whole situation.”

“My suggestion ‘to move on’ from the investigation is not to ‘hide it’ from the public, but rather to help ‘heal’ a small town,” he wrote in an email.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or 413-329-6871. 

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