BLANDFORD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – Board of Selectman chair Adam Dolby called a meeting of all the departments in Blandford Wednesday evening, in advance of scheduled reports from the fire, police and highway departments.
“I had an idea in starting the year with the different boards. I wanted to start the year with a plan that we could all agree to going in the right direction,” Dolby said at the start of the meeting, which coincidentally took place one day after the announcement by Attorney General Maura Healey of the indictment of former tax collector LeeAnn Thompson on charges of stealing more than $150,000 from the town.
Dolby said that he thought it was appropriate in the wake of the news to speak about some of the changes taking place in the town, many due to the hiring of town administrator Angeline Ellison last fall.
Dolby said that Ellison has been put in charge of groups that the Board directly supervises, and is putting in place controls, hours and changes of contact. He asked that those groups go through Ellison on questions for the Board.
He said the need for some of the changes directly speaks to the reason indictments were handed down in the first place. He said in the past, the town had been lax with financial controls, which he called “a work in progress.”
“My intent is that we never again create an environment where those types of challenges are allowed,” Dolby said.
In talking about moving forward, Dolby said his main goal has been to involve, attract and encourage new people to get involved in the town, instead of going back to “the same thirty people who get involved in everything.”
Dolby said he also wanted to take the opportunity of the meeting to properly introduce Ellison to the departments in town. He said she has a great perspective, and has brought in new ideas from the outside. Ellison, who lives in Sturbridge and works three days a week in Blandford, was then given the floor to introduce herself to those she had not yet met.
“I have a vested interest in making Blandford successful, and moving it to the next phase,” Ellison said. She spoke about the extensive history of the town, and the hard work that has been done in recent years. She pledged to guide the town to the next phase through consistency, accountability and success.
During a break, Ellison said she thought being an outsider had given her an advantage.
“I think it’s good that I don’t have the history, don’t have the relationships. I’m looking at the issues, and the good things the town is doing,” Ellison said. She said her main function is to manage the operations of the town, and to supervise the departments under the tutelage of the Board of Selectmen. She said this is her first position as a town administrator, but not her first municipal position. She previously served on the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee in Sturbridge.
A brainstorming session followed, with ideas about how to get more people involved, a common problem in the hilltowns. One of the ideas included a fully staffed open house at Town Hall, with food, on a day when people could bring their children.
Others spoke about attracting college students from Westfield State, something which the Fire department has successfully done. Others spoke about scheduling meetings at different times to make it easier for residents to attend, and limiting the time commitment for volunteers.
In response to several other suggestions, Ellison said she is working on improving the telephone line into Town Hall, which some find confusing to navigate, and also on using the Reverse 911 to communicate town announcements.
Dolby asked if the departments thought more sessions like this would be helpful. Most agreed that having the various departments in town communicate more and support each other’s activities is helpful.
Chief of Police Kevin Hennessey then reported on his department. He said the department has lost funding and staff, although call volumes are steady, saying he received 106 calls in October. He said in years past he had a staff of six or eight and is down to two, requiring him to give more calls to the state police, which he called “disheartening.”
Hennessey said he is looking forward to having the police do more within the community, such as the Toys for Tots drive the department held in December. The toys were delivered to the Huntington Food Pantry.
“This is tough times for police, a lot of people have been getting hurt,” Hennessey said.
Fire Chief Ed Harvey also spoke about the need for more funding, especially for capital purchases. He said the fire department needs new apparatus, and has applied for a competitive state grant to purchase one. They also need a new fire house. Currently the department’s engines are stored in a garage built in 1910 to fix buggies that has a 9’3” door, while most new engines are 10’ tall.
Harvey said the good news is that the town had zero structure fires, zero line of duty deaths, and zero injuries in the past year.
“I’d like to say some of that is due to fire prevention efforts,” Harvey said. He is currently working on a mitigation plan for the town that contains suggestions such as cutting brush away from buildings.
Highway Superintendent Brad Curry said his department has also outgrown its 1949 facility, which the fire department is interested in taking over. He said it has been a tough year for the highway department, which lost most of its employees and is in the process of restructuring and rebuilding, including hiring a new secretary and two new road crew members.
“We need to get funding to rebuild and redo the roads,” Curry said.
Curry also said the winter is looking like it will be quite expensive, with 12 to 13 events to date. He said the recent sleet to freezing rain to snow are very expensive storms that use a lot of product.
“I hope we can all work together and make Blandford better, so people will want to visit,” Curry said. He also had high praise for Ellison, who he called “a breath of fresh air.” Curry said she helped him to see some things in the department that weren’t working very well.
Ellison is the first town administrator that Blandford has hired in recent years.
At odds on Wednesday were Selectmen Andy Montanary and Bill Levakis, who began a debate at the end of the meeting over whether to pursue turnpike access for the town.
Montanaro had reported under old business that he had drafted a letter to Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, asking her to get involved in the town’s efforts to gain turnpike access. Montanaro said he had been working for 2 ½ years with the MassDOT to open the topic, but has had no response from them. He called turnpike access one of the top two motivators of the Hilltown Community Compact, which Polito supported with a grant.
Levakis said it was premature to even ask. He said the survey that went out to town residents, which Montanaro called “overwhelmingly positive,” was meaningless to him.
“I’m almost positive the majority of residents wouldn’t want it,” Levakis said, calling the 351 signatures an inadequate sample from a town of 1,400 residents. “A lot of people just don’t want to change the atmosphere,” he added.
“We have been changing, we’ve been shrinking and on the brink of collapse,” Montanaro said.
“I’m in favor of trying to talk to them. If we can start the dialogue, great,” Dolby said, stepping in. After more heated exchanges, he suggested putting a non-binding resolution on the ballot at the Town Meeting, in an attempt to get more people to weigh in.
Ellison said she would draft wording for the resolution.