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Official quits amid secrecy

The Hillsboro selectmen spent more than $46,000 in legal fees for an investigation of their town administrator that led to his resignation last month, according to the selectmen.

The investigation report about John Stetser’s job performance will remain private as part of Stetser’s resignation agreement, which the selectmen accepted last month.

While the selectmen said they hope the town will now move on from the four-month investigation, town employees have expressed anger over how the situation was handled.

Deputy town clerk and tax collector Denise DeForest spoke out at a selectmen’s meeting last month, asking for ‘’an apology for everything that’s been going on for four years.’’ And Wendy Brien-Baker, who resigned from her position as a town office clerk in May but has continued to work on a part-time basis, spoke to the Monitor about her frustration with the resignation agreement.

‘’Here we are with nothing,’’ Brien-Baker said. ‘’Nothing from it, other than him resigning. . . . And yes, he’s resigned. But the truth is all under lock and key.’’

Four women seek inquiry

DeForest and Brien-Baker were among the four female town employees who requested an independent review of Stetser’s job performance in February.

Their request did not list specific complaints against Stetser, who was hired as town administrator in 2008. The selectmen said at the time that the investigation would include allegations of sexual harassment and complaints about Stetser’s management of personnel situations. They hired attorney Emily Rice of the Concord law firm Orr & Reno to interview town employees and elected officials.

Brien-Baker said she personally met with Rice for a five-hour interview during the investigation. She declined to discuss details of the sexual harassment allegations with the Monitor.

She said Stetser also began delegating his responsibilities to other employees when he began as the town’s administrator, and the town office became a ‘’chaotic, hostile work environment.’’

After working for the town for six years, Brien-Baker resigned in May. The investigation had continued for two months at that point, and she did not want to stay while it was unclear whether Stetser would keep his job.

‘’During the investigation there were actually sightings of him continuing the behavior that we’ve all reported. And also because of the investigation, all around town they were calling us names - ‘whiny town office women.’ ‘’

Brien-Baker said she wished the selectmen had listened to complaints from town employees over the past few years. She said she and other employees only asked for an independent review of Stetser’s job performance because the selectmen hadn’t taken any action on their own.

Last November, Brien-Baker and four other employees submitted a written grievance to the selectmen about Stetser’s management of a personnel issue involving then-Town Planner Shane O’Keefe. The grievance said Stetser had failed to acknowledge the employees’ complaints.

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment allegations had also been brought to the selectmen beginning in 2010, Brien-Baker said. Russell Galpin, chairman of the selectmen, told the Monitor in March that he had previously been aware of sexual harassment complaints against Stetser. The selectmen believed at the time that they could not act without a first-hand account, he said, but had since learned ‘’that was erroneous.’’

Galpin maintains that the independent investigation was necessary because the selectmen could not have conducted an unbiased review on their own. They needed a report that ‘’could stand up in court’’ if it led to a lawsuit, he said.

Rice’s investigation cost more than $38,000, Galpin said, although the selectmen had initially planned to spend about $20,000. He said the town paid an additional $8,000 to the town’s attorney, Michael Donovan, for work related to the investigation and resignation.

‘’When you start dealing with lawyers, it gets expensive,’’ Galpin said.

Galpin said the resignation agreement also helped avoid a lawsuit, which would have been much more expensive than the investigation.

Selectman Steven Venezia said while ‘’the whole matter was unfortunate for all parties involved,’’ the selectmen acted in the best interest of the town.

The selectmen said the separation agreement gave Stetser a few more days of paid leave than are in his contract and one extra month of health insurance. His resignation is effective Aug. 30 and does not include a cash settlement.

At the July selectmen’s meeting when the selectmen accepted Stetser’s resignation, DeForest told the selectmen she was disappointed that ‘’this whole situation got off way too easy.’’

Galpin promised DeForest at the meeting that the board will handle similar issues more efficiently in the future. DeForest told him ‘’that doesn’t make it right.’’

‘’Shame on all of you,’’ she said. ‘’Shame on all of you.’’

Galpin said this week that the selectmen hope to schedule a meeting with town employees to ‘’just have them sit down and say, ‘Hey, look, this has been a big hassle and a lot of problems. Let’s get back to working for the town of Hillsboro.’ ‘’

Seeking apology

Galpin said the selectmen accepted Stetser’s resignation with an agreement not to disclose details of the investigation because it would ‘’get it out of here, get it done with and let’s move on.’’

Brien-Baker said she feels the town employees deserve an apology from the selectmen to acknowledge that mistakes were made in the past four years, and she still feels the report should be made public.

‘’The four people that signed the request weren’t even able to read the investigation that they requested,’’ she said. ‘’Instead, they make some settlement, make some promise to keep everything locked up. Who’s it protecting?’’

Galpin said only the selectmen, the town’s attorney, Stetser and Stetser’s attorney have read the investigation report.

Although he had initially wanted to publicize the report, Galpin said he changed his mind because the final agreement was ‘’the most economical way to get out of it.’’

‘’I know I’m not noted for keeping my mouth shut, but on things like this you kind of have to,’’ he said.

(Laura McCrystal can be reached at 369-3312 or lmccrystal@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @lmccrystal.)’

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