TAMWORTH — Selectmen have gotten an earful recently from residents who have thronged the board’s weekly meetings to defend embattled Recreation Director Parker Roberts after his job was slashed from full-time to 15 hours a week.
Now Roberts’ lawyer has written the town, calling the selectmen’s decision discriminatory and saying it could lead to a lawsuit.
The letter from attorney Edward Alkalay of Alkalay & Smillie PLLC of Conway says the town has until Jan. 27 to respond.
About 50 residents confronted selectmen at their Jan. 2 meeting and around the same number returned Jan. 9 to confront the board again.
The board, which consists of Chairman Dan Poirier, Willie Farnum, Becky Mason, Aaron Ricker and Melanie Streeter, said that the rec job that Roberts described didn’t warrant 40 hours and that Roberts’ situation is a personnel matter. Ricker was absent.
On Jan. 3, Town Administrator Darlene McWhirter told the Sun that Roberts’ position had been cut from 40 hours to 15 hours a week but that the pay rate, $21.10 an hour, would remain the same.
Local parent Sarah Baker, who was on the agenda of Jan. 9 selectmen’s meeting to discuss Roberts, launched a petition to have his full-time position reinstated. Baker said she has gotten over 1,000 signatures.
However, the most dramatic moment of the night came when Tiffany Roberts, wife of Parker Roberts, read a scathing multi-page letter aloud to the board, claiming the cutting of his hours was in response to his putting his family on the town’s health insurance plan.
“Beginning when Parker added our family to the town’s insurance plan, you, the selectmen immediately began trying to cut his job. The timing of his increase in benefits cost is simultaneous to when you started painting Parker’s performance in a negative light,” Tiffany Roberts’ letter said.
“Everyone can see through your claim of ‘personnel issues,’” it went on. “Folks, if nobody clued you in on this yet, what you did to this man was both immoral and illegal.”
Alkalay sent his own letter to the board Jan. 14, stating that Roberts’ “negative performance evaluations coincided directly with him getting married and having a family, which resulted in an increased medical benefits package.”
The letter stresses that Roberts is not a litigious person but adds that the town has until Jan. 27 to respond.
A follow-up letter dated Jan. 17 says that, according to RSA 354-A, marital status is a “protected class” and that the town’s action is discriminatory.
“Consequently, your decision to slash his hours after 25 years of service directly after he was married thereby denying him and his family medical benefits, is both heartless and illegal,” said Alkalay, adding he had a “litigation hold letter” telling the town to preserve any document or communication it had regarding Parker Roberts.
“Parker and Tiffany Roberts were married on April 29, 2017,” said Alkalay. “Parker joined a full family health plan on Jan. 1, 2018.
“In 25 years as rec director, the first negative evaluation he ever received comprised the time period from the end of 2017 through Dec. 4, 2018.
“Many of the individual sections and the overall evaluation indicate that he ‘requires development’ (the lowest evaluation). He’d never received this before,” Alkalay said. Previous evaluations were all “exceeds expectations” or “meets expectations.”
Farnum, at the Jan. 9 meeting, read another brief statement saying that he had mispronounced the word “personnel” as “personal.” Then he read a statement from the entire board.
“At tonight’s meeting, we cannot and will not discuss any personnel issues,” said Farnum. “We have taken the steps to reduce the recreation director’s position to 15 hours based on the program hours that the recreation director gave the select board. This action has nothing to do with the director’s character or what he offers the children that attend his activities. The select board recognizes the need for a robust recreation program in Tamworth that serves the whole community and we will do our best to try and make that happen. The select board has a fiduciary responsibility to spend the taxpayers money the best we can.”
Baker, a resident of about 14 years and mother of two children, 11 and 8, had a statement of her own. She said the cut was made against the will of the voters. She said parents like her have seen how Roberts’ program benefits the town.
“You say you you’re going to hopefully keep the program intact, and I don’t see how it can be at 15 hours,” said Baker adding Tamworth children desperately need the recreation program.
Former selectmen Steve Gray and Jim Hidden spoke out at the Jan. 9 meeting. Gray said there will be a time in the summer when the 15 hours won’t be enough to get everything done. He wondered what selectmen would have the recreation director do.
He also asked the selectmen to consider talking to legal counsel because he believes using volunteers to do the work of paid staff would be a violation.
Hidden said there was “little or no warning” before this decision was made. He said residents at town meeting supported the recreation department.
“You guys should not have operated the way you did — close out the year 2019, spring a decision on an employee and collectively on the town here,” said Hidden, telling the selectmen to instead fight for their point of view at town meeting in March.
Brooke Barron said she was “disgusted” by the selectmen’s decision. She grew up in Tamworth and was heavily involved in the recreation program for 12 years. “This corrupt and careless group of individuals have pried countless opportunities from the children of Tamworth and their families,” said Barron. “Tamworth is no longer a place for families. It is a place for those who are willing to pay higher and higher taxes with nothing to show for them, a place where folks are willing to stand by and watch while the value of their property plummets and a place for adults who have no intention of procreating as I, for one, would not raise children in a town that does not value a recreation department and is run in such a deceptive manner.”
Selectmen meet next Thursday at 6 p.m.