By show of hands after nearly an hour of discussion in the Westport High School Auditorium, the small crowd put up enough hands to convince moderator Steven Fors that they had achieved the two-thirds super majority needed to send the question to the April 9 town election.
On hand to argue in favor of keeping the post elected was Jack Sisson, incumbent highway surveyor. Mr. Sisson has kept a low profile since being arrested and placed on paid suspension late last year along with his head mechanic on charges that they stole town equipment.
He rose at the end of the public comment session and, before being asked to address only the question on the agenda, said he has never been found guilty of anything, that the accusations are hearsay. He then said that his department has performed well under his leadership.
“I don’t think any department, including the selectmen, has ever asked me to do anything and found that the job was not done,” Mr. Sisson said.
Asked later about the voting outcome, Mr. Sisson said he was not surprised and will wait to see what the voters say this spring.
He said his term lasts through April 2014 and he has no intention of leaving.
“I’m not giving up,” he said. “I think most people know about the job I have done at the Highway Department … And if it does pass, who knows, maybe I could get appointed.”
Speakers were divided on the appointed versus elected question.
The Finance Committee has already backed the change to appointed unanimously as did the Board of Selectmen.
“We believe it sets the town up for better long-term stability,” said FinCom member Mark Carney. He said that only two other towns in the Commonwealth with populations under 10,000 appoint the head of their highway department.
And fellow member John Miller said he “strongly supports” the change because it would enable the Selectmen to hire and fire on the basis of professional standards and job description.
Selectman Craig Dutra said the Selectmen backed the question by a 5-0 vote, adding that it’s not often that the Selectmen agree 5-0 on anything.
The proposal “doesn’t come out of the blue,” Mr. Dutra said, noting that three studies have recommended the transition to appointed highway surveyor.
Later, fellow selectman R. Michael Sullivan agreed. “This is not a referendum on the current office holder. This is something we have been considering for several years.”
Audience member Arthur Caesar disagreed with the call for change.
Small town governments “are the last cradle of liberty … Every time you take a vote away from a citizen you take away a little bit of democracy.” The decision, he said, should be left with the townspeople.
Although he voted in favor of sending the question to a special town meeting, Selectman Antone Vieira Jr. said he did so mostly to give the voters the choice this spring.
He praised the Highway Department under Mr. Sisson’s leadership for its thrift and its accomplishments.
“I know we’ve had some problems — I’m not a judge.” But there has “been a lot written and said that is unfair. Look at the facts.” There is nothing for Westport to be ashamed about as far as how that department is working,” he said, adding that he thinks Westport does a better job with its roads than most communities in the state. “I don’t think it’s a slam dunk that you get more efficient when you go to appointed.”
Audience member Donna Amaral said she is embarrassed by what she reads in the paper about the department.
“It’s not working. Things are not fine.” She said she is concerned about how resources are used and money spent; the person in charge should be “competent and not corrupt.”
Asked how the selectmen would go about appointing a highway surveyor, Chairman Richard Spirlet said a committee would come up with candidate recommendations and the selectmen would then interview the finalists. “It would be done in open meeting … the process would be very straightforward and right up front.”
He added that the selectmen already do that with other department heads, including the fire and police chiefs.
Audience member John Walsh said he opposes the change and asked voters to consider past selectmen whom they have not liked and the prospect of giving such people additional appointment powers.
“We are giving up one more elected position … If anything needs changing it’s the provision for recall,” he said.
A member of the landing and beach commissions began to speak about Mr. Sisson’s dedication to the job but was interrupted by Moderator Fors who directed him to speak to the question at hand, not personalities.
If the change is approved in April, changes would include:
• Minimum educational requirements: Bachelors degree in civil engineering or related field, five years experience in public works and engineering including three years of supervisory experience or an equivalent combination of education and experience.
• Special requirements: Mass. Class A vehicle operator’s license with endorsements in tanker, hazardous materials, air brakes and hoisting license.
• Knowledge of civil engineering in a municipal setting, all applicable local, state and federal regulations.
• Current salary would apply – $70,000 plus or minus depending on experience.
• Term: Not to exceed three years (after which reappointment would be up to the Selectmen).