By Andreas Yilma, Staff Writer
BEACON FALLS — In a divided decision, the Board of Selectmen voted this month to replace third-party clerks for board and commission meetings with town employees.
The board approved the change 2-1 during a June 11 virtual special meeting. First Selectman Gerard Smith and Selectman Michael Krenesky approved the motion, with Selectman Christopher Bielik voting against it.
“Many years ago this idea was floated around to be done. It never got done,” Smith said in a subsequent interview. “The time was right now to get control.”
The town had hired third-party clerks to take minutes at meetings as well as perform other clerk duties for boards and commissions. These duties will now be given to town employees, who will replace three people who had been clerking for boards.
“Everybody did a great job. There were just a lot of inconsistencies,” Smith said.
The move comes after former resident Shawn Styfco filed a Freedom of Information complaint in February against the Planning and Zoning Commission. Thomas Hennick, public education officer for the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said in an email the complaint was withdrawn in May.
During the meeting, Smith said Town Attorney Alfred P. Bruno advised him that the FOI complaint was defenseless and that meeting minutes were filed late 16 out of 19 months. Smith said the town spent $1,500 in legal fees due to the complaint.
Bielik argued former Planning and Zoning Commission clerk Mary Ellen Fernandes posted information in a timely manner, adding the failure was from a town employee and not Fernandes.
Smith said he wants to have consistency across the boards, regularity throughout Town Hall, and avoid FOI issues.
“This will give us a greater accuracy, timeless transparency; making our clerking needs more efficient and giving us more control over boards and commissions,” Smith said during the meeting.
In a subsequent interview, Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Kevin McDuffie defended Fernandes.
“Mary Ellen has been clerking for 21 years,” he said. “She knows the rules and regulations for posting minutes, agendas, public hearings.”
Smith informed the three clerks of the decision before the board voted on the motion.
Fernandes said she feels it was a rash decision.
“I’ve been there for almost 22 years,” Fernandes said. “To just get a phone call to say your services are no longer needed, I don’t think that was the professional way to change the clerking.”
In the past, third-party clerks charged anywhere from $40 to more than $300 per meeting, Smith said. The town employees will handle their clerk duties within the 35 hours they work a week and receive $80 per meeting, he said.
Bielik felt making the change will take town employees away from the jobs they were hired to do.
“We’re creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bielik said. “The FOI complaint, I think is a poor reason for us to be responding to this in the manner that we’re doing right now.”
Smith said McInnis Inc., a Milford-based firm the town hires for human resources services, structured the move to make sure there won’t be any overtime. The plan was also reviewed by Bruno, he said.
The new clerks will be appointed by the end of the month, Smith said.