by Tim Wood
CHATHAM Faced with considerable opposition both from members of the public and the Board of Selectmen, a proposal to restructure the hierarchy of the coastal resources department was withdrawn Tuesday.
After a 90-minute discussion before a hearing room crowded with fishermen and boaters, acting Town Manager Donald Poyant withdrew the plan, which was proposed by former Town Manager Thomas Groux and would have removed the title and duties of harbormaster from the director of coastal resources and combined them with the wharfinger position. Selectmen agreed to the withdrawal, but plan to take the issue up again during budget discussions slated to begin March 16.
While it was no secret that there was general unhappiness with the proposal among members of the fishing and boating community a petition opposing the switch circulated during the past week an unexpected consensus of those at the meeting was the need to keep both the harbormaster and wharfinger positions separate. And while some defended the need for a manager to administer the department, others felt duties such as planning and permitting for dredging and other projects could be carried out by the harbormaster and wharfinger, as they have for years.
But therein lies the problem: for many years, paperwork and permitting often did not get done because there was no overarching manager of the town's waterways. That's what Keon was hired to do, as director of coastal resource, and it was never anticipated that the position would continue to function as a traditional harbormaster, said Poyant. Shifting the harbormaster title and duties to the wharfinger, leaving the department director free to manage, made the most organizational sense, he said.
That's not how the coastal resources director position was sold to the town, said Selectman Ronald Bergstrom. He was unhappy that Groux presented the change, the final element of a four-year-long department reorganization, as a done deal as of Feb. 12. "Really I feel that the process didn't recognize the need for public input and discussion."
There was plenty of public discussion during Tuesday's meeting. Renee Gagne, who has worked around the waterways for 15 years, said she felt "frustrated and alienated by the process." Bruce Colvin, a member of the town's Waterways Committee which, in a split vote Monday, agreed to support the change said he questioned if it was wise to invest the statutory powers of the harbormaster in a subordinate who could then overrule his superior. Ron Sgroi, a boater and deputy fire chief, questioned whether combining the wharfinger and harbormaster positions would leave the fish pier unmanned at times. "It is going to put somebody's life in jeopardy because they're not standing by the radio?" Sgroi asked.
While a dispatcher position has been established to ensure that there will always be a presence at the fish pier, fishermen and Waterways Committee member Ted Ligenza said even if it costs more, there should be a separate wharfinger who can give full-time attention to the fish pier. "We need one guy who's there all the time and who knows all the guys," Ligenza said. "That's the way it's always been. I don't think it should change."
Selectman Eileen Our agreed. "The Chatham fish pier is so busy at certain times of the year it needs a full-time wharfinger," she said. The harbormaster job is also full-time, and in combining the positions, one or both will suffer. After Selectmen Parker Wiseman suggested the proposed structure be given a year's trial, Our replied: "We are dealing with human lives and economic futures. One storm, one boat in trouble does not deserve a trial."
The irony is that, for more than two years, Wharfinger Stuart Smith has been doing both jobs. He assumed most of the harbormaster's on-the-water duties after the late Peter Ford became ill, and was named assistant harbormaster more than a year ago. He said Monday if the selectmen had OK'd the restructuring, nothing would essentially change; without the approval, nothing would change, either.
Considerable work has gone into the pier in the past year; most of the bulkhead has been rebuilt and docking facilities have been extended to the north to accommodate a new Coast Guard berth. Christopher Davis, a member of the Aunt Lydia's Cove Committee and president of the Chatham Fishermen's Association, said it was a miracle the town hasn't been sued because of the dangerous situation the construction has created. "The job can't be done by one person," he said of the combined position. "It is a full-time job being harbormaster in this town; it is a full-time job being wharfinger."
Shareen Davis said she felt the coastal resource director position was "just another level of bureaucracy we don't really need." She suggested that a new town manager could handle the administrative duties the position now has, leaving the harbormaster and wharfinger jobs to their traditional tasks.
Voices were raised at one point when fisherman Ed Mallows attempted to give Chairman of Selectmen Douglas Ann Bohman a petition which essentially attacked Keon's qualifications for the job of harbormaster. Bohman refused to accept the petition, referring complaints about personnel to Poyant.
The petition, which was circulated at Larry's PX and other locations around town last week, stated that if Keon does not have the proper qualifications to be both coastal resources director and harbormaster, "then a new position should not be created for him at the expense of the taxpayers."
Donald St. Pierre, the town's herring warden and a Waterways Committee member, defended Keon, saying he is the right man for the coastal resource director job. Smith is the one who should be on the water. "He knows the water, he knows all aspects of it. And Ted should be administering." He suggested people needed to give Keon time to learn the waterways, just as Smith, and Ford before him, had to learn the job. "You've got to learn it by getting your ass kicked on the water," St. Pierre said, which drew an affirming "That's the truth!" from Wiseman, an experienced boater.
Selectmen Thomas Bernardo stressed that it was the positions at issue, not the people who currently hold them. Poyant dismissed the issue of the harbormaster, who has specific statutory authority under state law, being subordinate to the coastal resource director, explaining that there are a number of positions in town that must hew to specific laws but still report to a superior. "If the town manager came to me as tax collector and said he didn't like how I was handling a situation, if it was a statutory thing, I'd have to, politely, say it's outside his purview."
It was clear from the discussion, said Poyant, that the proposal needed more analysis and input to arrive at a structure "everyone can be comfortable with. It's certainly not an areas we want to create animosity." In offering to withdraw it, he said all of the issues raised during Tuesday's discussion should folded into further talk. There was no money involved in the restructuring proposal Smith received a pay increase when he was named assistant harbormaster but if a separate wharfinger position is established, there would be a budget impact. The best time to take the issue up would be during a discussion of the preliminary budget selectmen received this week, which is scheduled for March 16. Bohman agreed, saying there needed to be "thorough consideration of a full-time wharfinger."
Our closed the discussion by reiterating the importance of the people who work directly on the waterfront. "Yes, we do need someone to write grants and do planning, but...you need the fireman to get out the truck even more than you need the chief," she said. "These are basics."