GILMANTON — Following public discussion and contentious debate, the divided Board of Selectmen this week voted two-to-one to grant Town Administrator Paul Branscombe a four-year contract starting at a salary of $55,000 in 2016 and including three annual increases of $5,000 through 2019.
Don Guarino, who chairs the board, was the lone dissenter while Michael Jean and Rachel Hatch both voted in favor of extending Branscombe a multi-year contract.
Before the selectmen turned to the issue, which they tabled two weeks ago, Ralph Lavin presented them with a petition urging them to defer any decision until after the elections in March, at which the composition of the selectboard could change. Lavin questioned whether Branscombe could be sufficiently evaluated to warrant a multi-year contract after only six weeks on the job.
However, most agreed with Terry Donovan who said that with Branscombe's arrival "for the first time in years I believe we have really turned a corner to professional town government in Gilmanton."
Mark Sisti, the town moderator, described the petition as "a mystery" and doubted those who signed it understood the substance of the issue it purported to address. He said that Branscombe "has turned the ship around" and had an "enormous" impact in the community.
"The last few weeks," said Fire Chief Paul Hempel, "have been wonderful. It's not baloney. It's a fact." He noted that Branscombe was "building a team and we're moving forward with efficiency."
"It's about time Gilmanton came out of the stone age," declared one man who urged the selectboard "don't go back, go forward" then, pointing to the former town administrator Arthur Capello, said "we have a choice."
"Give the professional team some breathing room without the politics," implored another. "My fear is that we just might lose this gentleman."
"Put him in," a woman cried, prompting a round of applause. "The ones who want to wait for the election want to turn back the clock."
Reminding the selectmen of the petition, Lavin again asked them not to enter a multi-year contract until after the election. Rachel Hatch, who was appointed to the board to complete the term of Steve McCormack, which expires in March, took his remarks as directed at her. Rising from her seat, she said "I'm not going just sit here and keep a seat warm. I'm going to take action when it needs to be taken."
Branscombe explained that he requested a multi-year contract because when he was hired the contract he was offered had not been reviewed by the town's legal counsel and there were insufficient funds in the budget to pay his salry for the remainder of the year. He said that despite the responsibilities of the town administrator, in 2019, the fourth year of the requested contract, he would earn $70,000, less than a department head earns in 2015.
"You're totally out of line," Guarino countered, insisting that funds were available to fund Branscombe's salary. Branscombe replied that because the funds were not appropriated in the line for the town administrator's salary he considered the contract he was offered "null and void" and said "that is why I asked for a multi-year contract."
Guarino proposed the selectboard enter a non-pubic session on the grounds that further discussion could impugn someone's reputation. "That's me," Branscombe remarked, insisting the discussion continue in public.
Turning to Branscombe, Guarino recalled that at a prior meeting Branscombe disclosed a series of financial miscues that occurred before his arrival then charged "you do whatever it takes to give yourself a gold star and you don't care who you step on." Guarino also took exceptions to remarks Branscombe made to the press, which he called "derogatory."
"Can we get to the agenda,?" Hatch asked while Jean said "there were errors. Everybody made them. We're moving forward."
Guarino reminded his colleagues that the town has never entered a multi-year contract with its administrator and warned against making a long-term commitment without the Budget Committee.
Raising her voice, Hatch said that "maybe that's why we're in so much trouble in this town." When Guarino pleaded "don't yell" she snapped "I do need to yell. You are seriously wrong on this." She went on to say that she had discussed the issue with the chairman of the Budget Committee, Brian Forst, who told her "go for it."
Jean moved the question. The vote was taken. Someone shouted "good job" and people applauded.
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