GORHAM — Director of Finance & Administration Denise Vallee became the acting interim town manager on June 11, as provided for in her contract.
“The board asked Denise to consider taking this position full-time, and we are pleased to announce that she has agreed,” said chairman Mike Waddell, reading aloud from a prepared statement at Monday evening’s select board meeting.
Vallee was sworn in by Town Clerk Carol Porter.
The board exercised its right by contract to release town manager Mark Shea from employment, effective June 28, Waddell explained. “The board thanks Mark for his many insights and efforts,” he continued, noting board members would have no further information on the separation.
Shea had been sworn into the post on Dec. 18, 2018, following a nearly six-month-long search that had begun after eight-year town manager Robin Frost abruptly announced she was retiring.
Mitch Berkowitz, who served as Berlin’s city manager in the past, for some months served as the town’s part-time interim manager.
Vallee's pay was increased retroactively, effective June 11, to that of town manager: $73,000.
The board will now advertise to fill the finance director’s position. Until that position is filled, she will perform the duties of both positions, using some hourly assistance.
“Once the finance position is filled, she will be appointed to fill the position of town manager,” Waddell said. “The board believes that Denise’s extensive municipal experience and long residency here in Gorham make her an obvious choice for this position.”
Later in the meeting, Vallee said that she had already held her first staff meeting and had found the staff eager to work together as a successful team.
The board voted unanimously, 3-0, to approve these steps. Selectman Adam White had missed some board meetings because his wife, Mary, has been in a Maine hospital, after being seriously injured on May 27 in a motorcycle accident. White, who was injured far less seriously himself, anticipates that she will be coming home soon.
The board also voted unanimously, 3-0, to adjust the town’s vacation policy.
“Any employee hired after July 1, 2019, will be capped at three weeks of vacation time after five years of service. The board reserves the right to negotiate with salaried employees a compensation package that includes more than three weeks’ vacation.”
Waddell explained that the number of weeks of vacation at one point had risen to five, but that the specific skills that town employees have are missed too much when they take so much time away from their duties.
Board members and the interim town manager all praised the outstanding efforts of police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel over a two-week period that included the horrific motorcycle accident in Randolph in which seven died, the July 6 ride-in, the town’s Fourth of July celebration on the town common and other accidents and events.
“We owe all these people a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Waddell said.
Fire Chief Jay Watkins was credited with helping plan the safe ride-in on July 6, which Waddell called a “thing of beauty.”
Vallee noted that both Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan had come to town to thank all the first responders. Both will see if there is any way that their offices can help solve the area’s inadequate communications services.
Vallee reported that the state Department of Environmental Services has acknowledged receipt of the alteration of terrain application for the snow storage project.
Two-thirds of the debris pile at the Department of Public Works’ yard has been removed, Waddell said, thanks to interdepartmental cooperation between the Department of Public Works and Water and Sewer Department.
“It’s been all hands-on-deck,” he said. “Now they’re on stand-by, waiting for the next steps to be done.”
Waddell said that the DES Commissioner Robert “Bob” Scott has helped out the town of Gorham by encouraging both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to work simultaneously to scrutinize the site plan so it can be either approved or modified as quickly as possible.
Four abutting neighbors to the project were at the board meeting: Helen Beausejour, Tim Bradstreet and James and Linda Reichert.
Because the snow storage area turned out to contain a vernal pool — a seasonal pool of water that provides habitat for distinctive plants, amphibians and other species — the original project plans had to be substantially changed.
A berm that will provide drainage control — likely to between 6 to 12 feet high — will be built some 95 or more feet from the abutters’ property lines.
Bradstreet pointed out that he would very much like to preserve a large pine tree behind his house.
“It would change my yard if it died,” he said. The berm will be designed to keep the melting snow from harming the existing houses. The melt water will run into the Androscoggin River and not into residents’ yards.
The most up-to-date CMA Engineers-proposed project layout can be viewed on the town’s recently updated website.
A public hearing will likely be held either next Monday, July 15, or Monday, July 22, in the opera house at town hall. The availability of CMA lead engineer Paul Schmidt is key to a successful hearing.
Waddell noted that the town has a tight deadline since the project must be finished before the snow flies.
“I’m not looking to kill the timeline (by making changes),” he explained, indicating that CMA is likely only to be able to make tweaks as a result anything said at the public hearing.
“The town needs something that is permittable — that can be permitted,” the chairman said.
The project cost that was discussed at the March town meeting was $341,000, but Waddell said that a new cost estimate would not be made until the same day as the hearing, when CMA will meet on-site with Director “Buddy” Holmes and other staff members, plus possibly Waddell.
In other action, the select board gave the go-ahead to Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Stewart to pursue the possibility of creating an inclusive “Limitless Playground” on the town common.
He reported that the three mothers on hand with their children that evening, all of whom were in strollers, had first come to him in April to talk about installing a wheelchair swing.
Then their vision — and his — grew until it included other playground equipment that would allow more children to play with and make friends on more varied equipment, all installed on safe surfaces, including rubber and wood chips.
Funding-raising efforts are already underway and grants will also be sought. The total cost could be in the $75,000 range or more, making it almost certain that the project will have to be built in several phases.
Matt Buteau of Northern Human Services said that his family would be among the many who would benefit from such a project that would be designed to be part of the whole playground.
The nearest inclusive playground is located in Nashua. Waddell asked that as Stewart studies how to make forward progress he remember that he will need to consider how vendors and other common users might be affected by a larger playground area.
He also said the National Park Service has a deeded right to the town common.
Waddell said he learned this when WalMart first came to Gorham, and NHDOT had made tentative plans to slice a narrow strip from the edge of the greensward to create a turning lane on Route 16.
“The concept of a more accessible playground is great, and we’ll want the best design possible,” the chairman said. “You’ll have plenty of time to think about it.”
Anyone who would like to make a contribute funds to the “Limitless Playground” project should send a check to Gorham Parks and Recreation at Gorham Town Hall.