Zoning board chairman resigns unexpectedly

Roger Menard walks out of select board meeting during discussion over clerk pay


The chairman of the zoning board of appeals resigned unexpectedly Monday evening, tossing his papers on the table and walking out of the room following a tense exchange with the Westport Select Board at town hall.

Roger Menard went before the board to ask for approval to change the job title and hourly pay rate for Maria Branco, the zoning board's principal clerk. It was the second such meeting on the topic — he'd appeared before the select board in December with the same request and had been told to talk to Westport's personnel board about the change, and report back.

On Monday, he returned with the personnel board chairwoman, both of whom recommended the change in title and pay — $27 per hour, part time.

"The zoning board is made up of five members and two alternates," he told the select board. "Our job as members is to attend and vote. This person's job is everything else. Our cases lately have recently been a lot more complex, which requires a lot of interface with lawyers. Generally during a meeting, then, I would initiate a phone call with our town lawyer but due to open meetings law, that's as far as I can go with it. At that point Maria would take over and be the interface. If that isn't done correctly and appropriately, it's entirely possible that we make an erroneous decision. It's important that we have someone in that position that is capable of doing that kind of job."

The change in title and pay, he said, was an attempt to compensate and recognize Branco for her contributions and the indispensable quality of her work.

While select board members didn't seem averse to the increase on its own, several, including chairwoman Shana Shufelt, said they were concerned that approving a pay raise for the non-union employee could put the town in a difficult postion when negotiating contracts and pay levels with other union and non-union employees.

"It's a ripple effect ... that will become an impact in our negotiations with both contract and bargaining units," she said. "My concern isn't that it's going to cost a few hundred dollars for one person. My concern is I don't know what the impact across town is going to be.

The personnel board chairwoman, who sat to Menard's right at the interview table, acknowledged that the requested changes could be problematic, and that she'd received a letter from a town union member who wrote that the one-off change seemed "unfair."

"I knew that this was going to open up Pandora's Box," she said. "It was an arbitrary (salary) number."

Shufelt said the board had four options — approve the request, reject it, delay and survey other positions across town, or approve a different salary amount.

Board member Steven Ouellette said that before taking a vote, he would like to see comparisons between Branco's position and others across town.

"We're not saying 'No,' but we need to be fair to all employees," he said. "I would feel better if we had some form of comparables with some of our other positions."

But "where does it end?" Menard asked, noting that he'd done as the select board asked and talked to the personnel board since December's meeting. Referring to Shufelt's earlier suggestion that rejecting the request was one of four possibilities, he said: "Reject it now and then you'll have my resignation."

After she replied that he could indeed resign, Menard tossed paperwork on the table, announced his resignation, got up and walked out of the room.

Following his vote, the board voted unanimously, with Brian Valcourt absent, to send the request back to the personnel board.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.