Selectmen Grapple With Proposal For Ombudsman Services

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Orleans news

During last week's discussion about the need for an ombudsman at Town Hall, Selectman Alan McClennen recalled filling that role informally when he worked in another town's planning department. An insider's knowledge of people and procedures is essential to the role, he indicated.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS Town Administrator John Kelly's proposal to add ombudsman duties to the job description of his incoming assistant town administrator ran into a roadblock last week.

With the impending retirement of Assistant Town Administrator Myra Suchenicz, Kelly told selectmen July 19, he had chosen Licensing Agent/Procurement Coordinator Liana Surdut for the job after advertising the position internally. In his administrator's report, he noted that he had also assigned Surdut “the role of ombudsman for permitting and licensing in order to assist applicants navigate through the regulatory process and enhance their overall experience working with town departments.”

Selectman David Currier made it clear he thought that would send the wrong message.

“From my personal experience,” the owner of the Orleans Bowling Center said, “it's very scary to open a business with a liquor license.” Currier said he was told by a town employee that he couldn't get a liquor license until after he started construction, leaving him fearing that he might just be building “a very expensive juice bar.” After his election, he said, another business owner told him he'd turned in his paperwork on time only to be told his license request wouldn't be heard promptly.

“If that's who's going to help me through the application process, I wouldn't want to open a business in this town,” Currier said. “I don't think it's fair to citizens of the town to have that person walking you through the permitting process... I disagree about doing it internally and not even allowing us to have this discussion. One of the reasons I ran was the inconsistencies that consistently come out of this town hall.”

Earlier, Kelly had explained his reasoning. “An ombudsman has to understand the process, the roles and responsibilities,” he said. “I really felt having someone understand the process in my office and responsible directly to me can walk that person through. We get very few complaints. Having this process, we can make the service that we provide better, but it's up to the board.”

Selectman Mark Mathison related his own experience when he was building his house: “I had gotten to the point where the board of health had signed off with the building inspector. I had to run down to the fire station for stamps so I'd not lose my place in line. When I got back here, I was told the health agent had changed his mind and I was no longer able to build my house.”

Eventually, things worked out, he said, but such stories demonstrate “a need to make sure that the notion that we're here to do a job for the citizens of the town and not vice versa needs to be predominant throughout town hall. I'm not saying people don't work hard and do a good job, but we can see cases where there are problems, frustrations. Maybe people are overloaded. We need to look at staffing.”

Currier called staffing “the key to correcting the problem. You've got to get the right staff.” Noting that none of his colleagues on the board “own a business in town being licensed,” he said speaking out was “nerve-wracking. I've got a target on my back.” He said the town had the police call him to tell him to pick up a license renewal. “I don't think you understand how difficult it is to speak out when you don't have to worry about the town meddling in your matters,” he said.

Kelly explained that the town asked Lt. Kevin Higgins, its licensing agent, to call because of concerns that the license renewal might not be picked up and posted in time. “When we close the office on weekends, how would you get your license?” he asked. “We don't call the police on establishments on a regular basis.”

Reaching back to his banking days, Selectman Meff Runyon said he “has a lot of experience with town permitting. There's not any town without horror stories.” While the matter needs to be addressed, he said, he's not sure that an ombudsman is the right answer. “The whole premise of an ombudsman is that they're neutral,” he said. “Creating an ombudsman out of town staff is not the way I describe neutral.”

Selectman Alan McClennen recalled his decades of service as a town planner in another community where he wound up being an ombudsman of sorts for applicants who were perplexed by the requirements of related boards and departments. “I was successful because I knew all the people in that town hall and how to make something happen as fast as it possibly could,” he said. “The person ultimately appointed as ombudsman has to be somebody that really understands how town hall works.... My strong feeling is that you develop that person from the inside.”

Under the charter, McClennen noted, “the town administrator has the right to hire who he wants. We can have further discussion about the role of ombudsman.”

Kelly and Selectman Chair Jon Fuller agreed to add that item to a future agenda.

“Working at making town hall less bureaucratic and more responsive is a whole separate subject,” Runyon said.