Under Protest, Commission Votes To Ratify Snell's Contract As Planning Director

Jason Graziadei •

Leslie Snell

Rejecting numerous calls from community members to start from scratch and open a formal search for the island's planning director, the Nantucket Planning & Economic Development Commission (NP&EDC) voted Monday night to ratify the contract of planning director Leslie Snell.

The vote was 9-0 to ratify Snell's contract, with two members - Kristina Jelleme and Wendy Hudson - abstaining from the vote. Commission members Mary Longacre, Nat Lowell, Bert Johnson, Joe Topham, Barry Rector, David Iverson, John Trudel, Dawn Hill-Holdgate, and Seth Engelbourg voted in favor of ratifying the contract.

Monday's meeting was the result of an open meeting law violation that faulted the commission's hiring process that concluded with Snell being chosen to replace outgoing planning director Andrew Vorce behind closed doors in 2023. The state Attorney General's office had ordered the NP&EDC to reconvene and conduct the discussion in an open public session. That happened Monday night, and nearly two dozen island residents spoke out in person and on Zoom to call for the commission to conduct an open public search, rather than simply ratify Snell's contract. More than a hundred people were watching the meeting online.

"I was appalled that the response by the NP&EDC was to essentially double down on their violation and put an item on the agenda to ratify the contract," said Maureen Phillips. "It was embarrassing and horrifying to many of us on this island. We should have received an apology from the town manager and the NP&EDC members who colluded in this violation, instead of doing what we’re doing tonight. This should have been the beginning of a proper process to fairly choose a new planning director. It’s quite terrible Ms. Snell has had to go through this. It doesn't have to do with her qualifications, it’s a lack of integrity."

But the NP&EDC members were unconvinced by the many arguments in favor of starting a new search. They extolled her accomplishments in her 22 years in the town's Planning & Land Use Services department under Vorce, credited her with reshaping the agency, and said her experience, ties to the community and expertise made her uniquely qualified for the job.

"She has permanent housing, she has a family in the community here, she's been here and lived here," NP&EDC member John Trudel said. "Twenty years experience working for this town is something to be marveled at. My firm belief is we have the best person for the job."

Planning Board and NP&EDC member Nat Lowell added "Hiring from within should be the first choice for everyone."

At-large NP&EDC member Wendy Hudson said she had heard the complaints from the public and was in favor of opening up a search process, even while acknowledging her belief that Snell was the right person for the job.

"An apology is in order," Hudson said. "That was a bad oversight and it shouldn't have come up that way. My biggest sadness is it's cast a shadow over the incredible job Leslie does. I absolutely believe she is the right person for the job. The process was flawed. The outcome was right, but the process was wrong."

The meeting began with accusations of conflicts of interest among some of the members of the NP&EDC. Hillary Hedges Rayport specifically called out Joe Topham, the owner of Topham Design Architecture, and John Trudel, a licensed realtor and construction supervisor, for having business interests that are often brought before the Planning & Land Use Services department which Snell oversees. Rayport also stated NP&EDC member Dawn Hill Holdgate was conflicted because she was friends with Snell. Rayport questioned whether all three should be voting on Snell's contract, and stated Topham "must recuse himself from all discussions about PLUS and Ms. Snell's employment."

In the days prior to Monday's meeting, Rayport had forwarded correspondence she had had with the state Ethics Commission regarding potential conflicts to members of the NP&EDC, along with teh town manager and town counsel John Giorgio. She followed up with an email about three commissioners which she said was not included in the meeting packet.

Topham responded to the accusation by stating he had already communicated with the Ethics Commission about the situation and had been cleared to participate.

"Next time do your homework," Topham said during the meeting, addressing Rayport. "I did it, you can do it."

Trudel said he had filed a 268A form disclosing an "appearance of a conflict of interest" and also believed he was able to deliberate and vote on the contract ratification.

"As far as my routine visits to PLUS, it is not to see Leslie, it's for my business to research files, anything to do with real estate as far as certificates of occupancy, filing building permits and the HDC, it doesn’t have anything to do with Leslie," Trudel said. "I don’t have a personal relationship other than I'm on the NP&EDC and that as a result, I'm part of the hiring process for the assistant planning director and planning director. Other than that, I don’t feel like I have a conflict and if the state doesn’t feel like I have a conflict, I’m ok with that as well. The proper disclosures were filed."

Rayport asserted in her email that the advice she had received from the state Ethics Commission regarding friendships being a conflict of interest indicated that: "Yes, a close personal relationship can be the source of a conflict of interest. When a public official must act on a matter involving a friend, the public official has two choices: recuse from the matter, or make a full, accurate disclosure of the relationship prior to acting on the matter regarding the friend. An elected official must file the written disclosure with the city or town clerk; an appointed public official must file the disclosure with his/her appointing authority. Alternatively, if the matter regarding the close personal friend is to be acted on at a meeting, the public official may make a full, accurate verbal disclosure of the relationship at the meeting when the agenda item arises, so that the verbal disclosure can be fully indicated in the minutes of the meeting, and, thus, part of the public record of the proceeding."

Hill-Holdgate said she had never been accused of a conflict of interest for being friends with someone who had dealings with the boards and commissions she had served on, but did acknowledge and disclose her friendship with Snell.

"Those friendships would never impact my ability to make a decision," Hill Holdgate sad. "I do consider her a friend, but that’s entirely separate from our professional capacities."

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