CHESTER – An article will go to Town Meeting this year asking whether voters want to stick with the traditional management system for the highway department or shift to a full-time director of public works.
Currently, and for decades past, every two years the town elects a road agent to handle road upkeep, but an article spearheaded by selectman chair Steph Landau would create instead a full-time road agent to be director of public works. This position would not be elected but would be appointed by the board of selectmen.
While the specifics of what this role would entail were not fully fleshed out by the selectmen, recent discussions among them indicate that the responsibilities and set-up would largely remain the same.
While current road agent Mike Oleson has said numerous times that the town needs to start looking at having a director of public works and a more robust highway department, he’s always added that to do this the town needs to buy equipment, have a building as headquarters and expand employee hours.
The article, according to Landau, doesn’t force any department expansion.
Support of the article is split down the middle of the board of selectmen, with Landau and Dick Trask in favor, Jack Cannon and Joe Castricone against and Joe Hagan abstaining.
At the selectmen’s meeting April 14, Cannon said the elected road agent position provides value to the community. These individuals often provide the town equipment – at times a point of contention, he conceded – but overall the town benefited from the traditional set-up.
“And I think the townspeople appreciate the level of service that they receive from the elected road agent,” said Cannon.
While Cannon was concerned that disagreements with how road agents make money from providing their equipment to the town were what was driving the article, Landau said that was not the impetus for him.
The issue was that Chester is growing out of the traditional set-up, said Landau, and there are fewer people with the ability to provide equipment for roadwork, as road agents always have.
People can run for the position of road agent and have no idea what they’re doing, explained Landau, and with no guarantees that Oleson is going to continue indefinitely in the job, the town needs to look at doing things differently.
“What I’m looking at is, ‘Do we have the people that can handle this,’” Landau said.
Castricone said he thinks the article is slightly misleading in that it did not specify a tax impact, but to agree with it was to agree with the need for major equipment purchases.
Landau disagreed with that idea, saying the town could continue to rent equipment when needed, even from the individual appointed as road agent. The only change would be from elected official to employee of the town.
Trask said the town needed a full-time road agent to keep up with roadwork and it would be more efficient to have an employee in that role.
Both Landau and Trask said their agreement with the article was not a reflection on the work Oleson was doing.
The article is set to go to Town Meeting on May 14 for further discussion.