Howell Resigns From Affordable Housing Trust Under Pressure From Fellow Selectmen

By: William F. Galvin

Selectman Donald Howell resigned from the affordable housing trust Monday. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – Selectman Donald Howell resigned from the affordable housing trust on Monday night, avoiding a vote on a motion by Selectmen Chairman Michael MacAskill to remove him from the trust.

It was a night filled with finger pointing and back and forth over what some selectmen described as dysfunction and the inability of the trust to improve the town’s subsidized housing inventory. Monday night’s session came on the heels of a board meeting a week ago when Town Administrator Joseph Powers, who serves as the affordable housing trust’s chair, issued an apology to the community for his actions in a combative trust session two weeks ago.

Last week Selectman Mary Anderson declared that the trust was dysfunctional and recommended a change in membership. She recommended two members of the trust, Judith Underwood and Larry Brophy, be replaced immediately.

This is not about retaliation or bullying,” MacAskill said at the opening of Monday’s discussion. “This is about dysfunction. It’s about five years of the trust not moving the needle forward. The trust seems to not be getting it straight. It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse.”

He continued, “I wasn’t elected to sit on my hands. I wasn’t elected to allow things to continue to go on that are broken. I’ve taken the time to talk to a lot of people in town and they think it is broken. I think it is important to change the dynamic of this committee and get something done.”

MaAskill said a rift had developed between Howell and Town Administrator Joseph Powers. The town administrator served a chair of the trust not because of the appointment of the board, but rather because of the language in the trust document, MacAskill said, and he suggested selectmen look at changing that document.

Members of the board agreed it was time to examine the trust and that changes were necessary to move forward. Anderson said her comments about dysfunction were not based on just the trust’s last meeting, but rather on 18 months of observing the group. She said there was a chemistry imbalance among the five members.

Howell said he was frustrated by an inability to communicate with Powers and get items on the trust’s agenda. He said he gets no response to emails and phone calls to Powers. Regarding the lack of a development plan for the 13.34-acre Marceline property, Howell said the property was purchased 591 days ago, and Powers has served as chair of the trust for the past 508 days.

I can’t get things on the agenda, it’s not the membership,” Howell said. “The other four of us get along really well.”

Howell said he’s worked to generated subsidized housing, including 125 units through his involvement with Harwich Ecumenical Council for Housing (HECH). The last six houses built by Habitat for Humanity were established in conjunction with HECH, he added.

We’re better than this, Harwich,” Richard Waystack said. “We need to get past this…I think you have a right in your reappointment phase to either reappoint, or find new members. To let members go mid-term, it’s very difficult to do…It’s a terrible precedent to set.”

He added, “I’d love to serve on the trust. I would never serve on it if two members were let go prior to their reappointment. The appropriate time is when your appointments are up. I hope you will not take the action tonight to let two members go that you as a board interviewed and appointed.”

I’m against removing anybody at this time. I think it would be divisive, especially with recent events,” said Mark Kelleher. “There would be a hint of retribution.”

Ballantine admitted he was struggling with moving ahead. If the trust is so dysfunctional, he said, why not start at ground zero, remove everyone and start all over again, send a clear message the board is going to address the issues.

Anderson said there have been efforts to undermine Powers as chair from members of the trust and she did not think it was fair. There was mention of a quorum boycott of one of the trust’s meetings.

I support him [Powers] as town administrator and think he’s done a darn good job,” Anderson said.

MacAskill questioned whether the trust issues were Howell’s or Powers’ fault. He said there have been efforts by Howell and social media to drive Powers out. He noted that Howell did not fill out an evaluation of the town administrator last year.

Anderson also took issue with Howell’s behind the scene actions and his desire to shun members when they disagreed with him.

“You thought I was going to nominate you for chairman” of selectmen, she said to Howell. “I nominated Mike. You stopped talking to me. I’m not behind the scenes trying to create trouble.”

Howell, a candidate for re-election in May, questioned why board members reappointed him to the trust last July without raising the issues about his performance.

“I will not step down. You can remove me,” said Howell.

MacAskill put forward a motion to remove Howell from the trust. After a majority of board members advocated for change, Howell capitulated.

“I will resign. Withdraw your motion,” Howell said.

Ballantine, who will not run for re-election when his term expires in May, said he would step in as the board’s representative to the trust. MacAskill said he would put the trust’s selectman appointment vote on the next agenda.

Selectmen agreed at that point that they would not address the removal of any other trust members.