CHELSEA — After months of hard work, things are turning around at the Town Office.

With new Town Office staff, a full Board of Selectmen and new procedures for dealing with abatements, purchasing, soliciting bids and making personnel appointments, this small rural community is slowly recovering after years of mismanagement and the arrest of former selectman Carole Swan.

Swan is facing criminal charges for allegedly taking kickbacks for a municipal plowing contract. Her next court date is July 26.

Chelsea has a new interim town manager, who may be asked to stay on permanently; a full select board; a new town clerk and part-time assistant; and new procedures voted in last month at town meeting, including a procurement ordinance and the creation of a board of assessment review.

The town also has new legal counsel. Stephen Langsdorf of Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios, who was hired in February to defend the town’s interests in the Swan case, will stay on as town attorney. His compensation is $200 an hour.

He said that, with all the changes, the town is finally moving forward in a positive direction.

“At this point, it’s really looking good for the town,” Langsdorf said Thursday. “We have a professional interim manager interested in staying on. And even though we can’t say who until approved by selectmen, we were able to hire somebody full-time who currently is working part-time as an assistant clerk in another town with experience and good references who is prepared to work full-time.”

He said interim Town Manager Scott Tilton, who was hired last month, is implementing appropriate changes, following procedures and reorganizing the Town Office. He also is reviewing all the town’s policies, Langsdorf said.

“The office is close to functioning as any small town office operates that hasn’t had the problems we’ve had,” Langsdorf said.

This week, Langsdorf and Tilton negotiated a financial settlement with Town Clerk Flavia “Cookie” Kelley, who planned to take legal action in a dispute over the validity of her contract.

Langsdorf said that settlement will be discussed by selectmen in executive and public sessions Wednesday. He said selectmen will post a warrant article at Wednesday’s meeting for a special town meeting July 20 so residents can vote on the settlement.

“This will give townspeople the opportunity to determine whether they would be better off paying a monetary settlement to buy out (Kelley’s) contract, or enter into a lawsuit and pay legal fees and have the uncertainly of that process,” Langsdorf said.

“These are the things we’re having to do to clean up the mess left behind by Carole Swan and Angle Gordon,” Langsdorf said. “Because Angie signed that (three-year) contract (with Kelley), there was enough gray area that it makes sense to reach a settlement and avoid a lawsuit.”

Though she lacked any municipal experience prior to hire, the contract Gordon extended to Kelley contained pay and benefits greater than those of clerks in every Kennebec County town Chelsea’s size.

Langsdorf said he believes the town has a strong enough case, but that, considering legal expenses and negative publicity to follow, it makes more sense to agree to the settlement.

In the tentative settlement agreement:

* Kelley would be paid all salary and accrued benefits through June 30;

* selectmen would include a warrant for a special town meeting in July to raise and appropriate $25,000 to be paid to Kelley;

* Kelley would be paid $25,000 on or before Aug. 20, if the article passes at the special town meeting; and

* Kelley agrees that, upon receipt of the payment, she will be “forever discharged.”

Langsdorf said Kelley received her regular pay and benefits right up until June 30, the end of the fiscal year. He said she also used a number of accrued vacation days during her administrative leave.

“This will put the situation behind us and give the town a clean sweep,” he said.

Tilton said he plans to recommend a few other changes at Wednesday’s meeting, including a personnel appointment policy.

He said the town doesn’t have any formal process for selecting people to serve on committees and boards.

“This has an application process and a more formal notification process to actually tell people when we have a vacancy,” Tilton said of his draft policy. “It requires the town manager to put public notices on the website and different public locations so people would be alerted. It’s based on actual qualifications, not favoritism . . . it takes that right out of the process.”

Tilton said he also will recommend establishing a town charter commission, to create a charter that “would allow (residents) to further modify the way the town operates in a way they feel it should,” Tilton said.

“I’m pretty sure selectmen are behind that 100 percent,” Tilton said. “I know it was the (campaign) platform one of the selectmen ran on.”

Tilton also wants to ask selectmen to consider changing Town Office hours.

The temporary hours were reduced after Kelley took personal leave in May and remained in place after the resignation of Town Manager Angela Gordon in June.

“I plan on recommending on Wednesday that we go to a four-day work week,” he said. “It used to be five, but with the budget, there really wasn’t ample enough funds to do the five days.”

Eventually, he said the town should consider two full-time Town Office employees to adequately serve the public.

He said the town also has all vacant positions on its boards and committees filled — except for an alternate position on the Planning Board.

Tim Coitrone has accepted a five-year term on the Planning Board, as well as the five-year term on the Appeals Board. He won both positions in a municipal election last month as a write-in.

But Tilton said he hasn’t heard back from Carole Swan, who was elected as a Planning Board alternate member with four write-in votes on June 28.

“I called her again on my way home yesterday and left a message,” Tilton said. “If I don’t hear from her … I’ll send out a letter. We need to fill this position.

“I’ll give her until maybe Tuesday. At the latest, I need to know by Wednesday night.”

The next selectmen’s meeting is 6:30 p.m. at the Grange hall on Togus Road. A public hearing to amend the town’s floodplain ordinance starts at 6 p.m.

Mechele Cooper — 621-5663

[email protected]

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