Ancram road boss deputy idea fizzles

ANCRAM — Controversy over the position of deputy highway superintendent, which erupted six months ago, continued to be a topic of discussion at the Town Board’s September 15 meeting.

The issue initially came up after Highway Superintendent James MacArthur took a vacation in March and appointed his brother Robert as deputy to oversee Highway Department work while he was away.

But things went wrong: a department employee was hurt on a job and was taken by ambulance to the hospital; another town highway department employee and a highway department truck were involved in a personal injury accident.

Also, “a number of protests” came from Ancram residents. One was Roger Smith, who filed a complaint with the Town Board of Ethics because the highway superintendent hired his own brother and was going to pay him for duties that could have been handled by existing paid personnel.

Within a week, the highway superintendent rescinded the deputy appointment and his brother resigned from the position.

The ethics board investigated Mr. Smith’s complaint and ruled in July that the highway boss had indeed violated the town ethics law because he did not follow proper procedure, which involved giving prior notice, getting permission, clearance and rate of pay authorization from the Town Board.

But the issue didn’t end there. The Town Board received a letter dated August 13 from Highway Department employee Anna “Taffy” Blass, which was discussed by Ms. Blass at the August meeting, and came up again at the September meeting after board members had a chance to digest it.

In the letter, Ms. Blass, who served as deputy highway superintendent for nearly two years between January 2008 and December 2009, took Mr. MacArthur to task for insulting her work  and that of the highway crew. She listed in detail how she dealt with the department’s two emergency situations in March, including administering First-Aid in one case, taking an employee to the hospital in the other, filled out all insurance-related paperwork and notified Town Supervisor Art Bassin about what had happened.

“I spoke to [Deputy Highway Superintendent] Rob [MacArthur] several times throughout this ordeal and he seemed very happy to let me handle the situation as I was most familiar with procedure,” Ms. Blass wrote.

Ms. Blass wants an apology from Mr. MacArthur for herself and the highway crew for the derogatory and inaccurate statements she says he made to the ethics board.

She also wants annual written job evaluations completed for every employee. Her third suggestion was that the deputy highway superintendent position be instituted, that the person appointed to the post be trained in all aspects of the job and that the position be a paid one.

She noted that while she was deputy, she was repeatedly called at home in the middle of the night when Mr. MacArthur could not be reached. She responded to calls in her personal vehicle and used her own chainsaw to remove debris from roads and was never reimbursed or compensated for her time, which is why she quit as deputy.

Last week, Supervisor Bassin asked for discussion about the suggestion that the deputy be full-time as opposed to just two-weeks a year. Superintendent MacArthur said the deputy post does not have to be paid nor does it have to be full-time. He said the only time the deputy has to perform any duties is “if I got sick or died, and there was nobody to certify payroll or sign bills. A second in command is only there in case I’m not.”

Mr. MacArthur said many departments have a foreman in charge of the crew. But with a crew of just four workers and every job requiring three people, Councilman Chris Thomas said he did not see the need for another supervisory position.

Councilwoman Madeleine Israel likened the post to that of an understudy, to fill in when the regular boss is sick.

Ruth Wittlinger asked why Supervisor Bassin couldn’t be the deputy. Mr. Bassin said it would not be appropriate for him okay bills for both the Town Board and the Highway Department.

The law says that the Town Board has to create the position of deputy highway superintendent and it’s the highway chief’s responsibility to appoint someone within five days after the post is created or the Town Board must appoint someone. The appointment also has to be made every year, Mr. MacArthur said.

“If you don’t create the position [of deputy and something happens to the highway boss] you would be appointing someone anyway… as superintendent,” said Mr. MacArthur, who told the board he did not care one way or the other whether the board creates the deputy position.

Councilman John MacArthur, also a brother of the highway superintendent, asked Mr. Bassin if the position of deputy supervisor is paid.

Mr. Bassin said the post is not paid now, but he plans to ask the board to consider some salary for it in the upcoming budget.

“Why start now?” asked the councilman.

The board took no action to create the position of deputy highway superintendent.

In other highway business, Mr. MacArthur said one of the roads he paved last month was washed out by Hurricane Irene: “Brand new pavement, gone in the swamp.”

Other than doing routine maintenance, the department spent some time along with two trucks from the Copake Highway Department helping with the storm damage cleanup in the Greene County Town of Windham.

He said roads that had been repaired following Irene were washed out again by Tropical Storm Lee and that most of the time he was there was spent clearing away trash which included: chairs, couches, washers, stoves, carpeting and flooring. Councilman MacArthur, who was also helping out in Greene County with the Ancram Fire Company said, “piles of garbage were in front of every house.” The highway super said two school buses, cars and trucks were buried in a brook.

A Greene County contractor who owned heavy equipment like bulldozers and backhoes told the highway chief he watched as his equipment and even the concrete floor washed away before his eyes. The force of the water was something the man had never seen before, he said.

To contact Diane Valden email

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