On a chilly Saturday in November, Monterey residents bundled up and banded together for an unusual special town meeting. As bitter factionalism continued to divide the community and erode productivity at Town Hall, voters approved using public funds to hire an independent investigator in an attempt to get to the bottom of it.
EAGLE INVESTIGATIONS: Investigators hired last year to probe complaints at Town Hall found the Monterey town’s administrator central to most conflicts, engaging in a misuse of power though “a pattern of conduct” that is retaliatory and manipulative — findings she strongly denies.
The people of Monterey then had every reason to anticipate a swift and thorough probe that would sift through the morass of accusations traded among local officials and hopefully point to some potential solutions to Monterey’s municipal logjam. They also could have assumed that since they fronted the cost of this report they would be able to learn its contents so they might reap the value of their investment.
While the investigative report was completed weeks ago, we are concerned that this second necessary step not only remains unfulfilled but appears to be of no interest to key town leaders.
Some of those leaders take issue with the report, such as Town Administrator Melissa Noe and her allies. This is not entirely surprising, given that the independent investigators found the town administrator to be central to many of the protracted conflicts. (Out of the 18 official complaints filed since the Town Hall turmoil reached a fever pitch last summer, 13 were filed against Ms. Noe.)
Ms. Noe, through her attorney, disputes the report. Fair enough. She should have her chance to — at a hearing where the report and her rebuttals can be entered into the public record along with responses to them allowing officials to scrutinize any claimed factual inaccuracies. What is not fair is her attorney’s suggestion that the report “review” and “revise” any findings that criticize Ms. Noe’s job performance as a condition of the Select Board accepting the report. Further, Select Board Chairman Steve Weisz’s suggestion that in order to “move on” the town should ignore this independent report is not only an unhealthy way to move on but contrary to the notion of open and responsive government. The residents of Monterey paid for this investigation to shed some disinfecting light on the toxic culture undermining their Town Hall. It shouldn’t be swept under the rug simply because it casts some officials in a bad light.
To be sure, there isn’t exactly much good light to go around. The Select Board chairman’s dismissive attitude toward an independent investigation that didn’t break the way he wanted is deeply troubling; so is the behavior of a vocal critic of his, fellow board member John Weingold, whose long-term solution has been to simply abandon his elected duty and sit out many Select Board meetings, which accomplishes nothing but ensuring the top town board is even more hobbled amid this tumult. Indeed, the report’s lead investigator highlighted the “tribalism” on both sides of this widening gulf, which the investigator said “expanded the scope of our investigation unreasonably,” ballooning its cost.
One need not take sides here to acknowledge something is rotten in the Town Hall of Monterey. When something is wrong in governance, the answer should always be a closer look at all the available facts, not downplaying a completed investigation ordered and paid for by constituents. Officials’ priorities should lie in serving those constituents, but this he-said-she-said web of disputes between leaders pulls at the seams of this community’s fabric.
The entire point of initiating this investigation was to glean some third-party analysis of this official dysfunction. Now that it is completed, it should not be cast aside as another casualty of this poisonous polarization, especially since the report also makes recommendations as to how Monterey might unwind some of its municipal tensions. Those are at least worth serious consideration in a public forum.
Yet the only reasonable way forward seems to be the one the Select Board is keen to avoid. At its Tuesday meeting, the board voted to forgo any hearings on the report, essentially tossing aside an investigation that has cost more than $21,000. That’s a pricey nothing-burger for this small town’s taxpayers. It also contradicts advice from Monterey’s legal counsel, who recommended at least holding closed-door meetings with officials mentioned in the report to better assess its findings. Unfortunately, it looks like finding new town counsel can now be added to this embattled Town Hall’s to-do list, as attorney Brian Maser wrote in a letter to the Select Board last month that his law firm will be dropping Monterey after its annual town meeting this weekend. If there will be new town counsel weighing in on this matter, we hope they echo their predecessor in a push for a more meaningful reckoning with this report.
An apparent leak of the report has given the public a peek. Still, town leaders, particularly the Select Board, should not shrink from grappling with it in a serious and official manner. One independent report certainly isn’t going to completely cut through this tangle of tiffs, but the investigation’s findings and recommendations should be subject to hearings, preferably public. It’s the least that is owed to Monterey residents who deserve to see some meaningful progress toward resolution of this municipal mess. If there are disputes to the report’s findings, no better place to air them than out in the open in those hearings. The findings can then be amended as necessary and recommendations thoughtfully debated before being dealt with by the Select Board in full view.
We urge this more transparent approach over the needlessly opaque one the board is currently taking. Anything less is a slap in the face to the citizens who approved and paid for this investigation.