Community Development Department Down Two Key Players

July 15, 2016


by Barbara O’Brien

The Windham School District is not the only entity in town being riddled by recent resignations.  The Town of Windham is being forced to deal with the void, as well.  Selectmen were in the midst of deciding how best to fill the job of town planner when they unexpectedly received the resignation of the community development director.  Having two jobs to fill has changed the entire scenario and reopened the discussion on possibly reorganizing the department.

Town Planner Elizabeth Wood resigned from her job this past April and selectmen have been having a tough time finding someone to take on those duties.  The job was offered to two different applicants, neither of whom accepted the offer.

Community Development Director Laura Scott handed in her resignation a couple of weeks ago.  Scott has accepted a job with a non-profit agency located in Concord.  Scott, who served first as town planner in Windham, then, subsequently, was hired as community development director, will be moving on to the Friends Program, previously known as RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program).  Scott’s final day on the job in Windham is July 29.

The topic of possibly reorganizing the Windham Community Development Department first came up when the selectmen were approached by Ed Gallagher, chairman of the Windham Economic Development Committee, a couple of months ago, with a recommendation to hire a full-time economic development director to work along with existing staff.  The subject was bantered about for several weeks, with the result being a split decision among selectmen.  The majority of five selectmen (3 to 2) did not want to add the new position at this point in time, however.

But with two vacancies in the department, Selectmen’s Chairman Joel Desilets felt there “was a clean slate,” which might be the perfect time to reorganize the department … without disturbing anyone’s existing employment.  A discussion held on July 5 included the possibility of making the two jobs a single combined position and again raised the specter of hiring a separate economic development director.  Neither idea got enough support, however.

Vice-Chairman Ross McLeod presented an option that generated considerable interest.  “Having a strong director of planning is a key element,” McLeod said.  McLeod suggested that the title of town planner be changed to chief planner or director of planning and the position given more authority; thereby attracting more qualified candidates than has been the case recently.  McLeod said the planner slot should be made a deputy management position with an increase in salary.”  We need to elevate the position,” he said.  Furthermore, McLeod explained, giving more authority to the planning job would allow the new community development director additional time for economic development; something Scott says she only dedicates about 30% of her time to doing.  “We need to attract a really strong planner, someone who has strong management skills, as well,” McLeod emphasized.

Currently, the job of town planner is a union position.  That would not be the case should it be made into a management position, such as chief planner or planning director.

Selectman Roger Hohenberger said his one concern is that the town has nobody running the community development department at all right now.  Hohenberger said he agrees there should be more focus on economic development, but noted that the community development director job involves a great deal of work above and beyond that.  A major component of planning is setting ordinances, setting the tone of the town and working on the master plan, Hohenberger said, noting that Windham is a residential community, not primarily a business location.  Hohenberger also said how important it is to maintain strong ties with existing businesses, not just attracting new commercial enterprises.

Town Administrator David Sullivan agreed with McLeod that the key component is hiring a strong planner.  “Things won’t work without that happening,” Sullivan said.  “And, it needs to be soon,” Sullivan said.  “We have an immediate need.”

Desilets agreed that the town needs to maintain a focus on existing businesses, but also needs a strategy to attract appropriate new businesses to Windham.  As for hiring the two employees, Desilets said, “We certainly are not going to rush.  We have to be sure to hire the best candidates.”  The search could take four to 12 weeks, he said.

The realigned job of community development director could include more management focus, as well as strategic and long-range planning, with focus on economic development.  The revised town planner slot would focus on both residential and commercial planning, in other words, “one-stop shopping for planning.”  McLeod said that it should be required that anyone hired for the planning job be a “certified planner.”  There appeared to be some confusion about the hierarchy of the two positions, although following the meeting, Selectman Bruce Breton said the community development director would be the person ultimately in charge of that department.

School District Moderator Betty Dunn commented on the decision needing to be made by selectmen and encouraging them not to rush, but to take time to garner input from the community-at-large.  “Take a deep breath,” Dunn said, and hire contracted services for the time being.  Hohenberger said attempts have been made to find contractors to fill the gap, but those attempts have not been successful.  “They’re all too busy to take on Windham, too,” he said.

Planning board member Ruth-Ellen Post said finding a new planner is the most urgent issue at the moment.  “We need a new version of Elizabeth (Wood),” Post said, “and we needed this person last month.”  “We’ve got some major stuff in the pipeline right now and we need a shepherd to lead us through,” Post stated.  Post also said she would like to see a representative of the planning board involved in the job search and in developing the specific job description.

Selectman Jennifer Simmons agreed that the immediate focus needs to be on finding someone to fill a director of planning position.

“We need both of these abilities in-house,” Desilets said.  “We need to move forward with both!”

Planning board member and former selectman Kathleen DiFruscia questioned how selectmen were going to address this very important work in the interim between Scott leaving and hiring someone new.  “We have part-time consultants only,” Sullivan said.  “It’s a rather bleak picture.”