News Feature

Stonington
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, May 11, 2017
Hilton Turner back on harbor committee

by Rich Hewitt

Hilton Turner will return to the town’s harbor committee for another two-year term.

The longtime chairman of that committee had been left in limbo earlier this month after he failed to obtain the minimum three signatures from selectmen required on his appointment papers. On May 8, two selectmen added their signatures to the papers making his reappointment official.

Another longtime member, Charles Turner, Hilton Turner’s father, did not obtain the required signatures, which leaves one opening on the committee.

The failure of the two Turners to gain reappointment to the committee sparked a confrontation between harbor committee members and the selectmen last week. At that session, Hilton Turner charged that the selectmen had conspired to deny him a seat on the committee. He cited his 27 years of service on the committee and said the selectmen’s action was “a slap in the face,” and claimed that had been in retaliation for his questioning of Town Manager Kathleen Billings. Turner claimed that he asked about the harbormaster situation and that Billings had become upset and said he had challenged her authority.

“I just asked why she [Harbormaster Raelene Pert] was relieved,” he said. “A chairman should be able to ask a question without repercussions.”

“When you deal with personnel issues, you don’t talk about it,” said Billings. “There’s a protocol that you follow. I don’t have to go to you guys to justify what I do.”

Pert was suspended from April 10 to 14 for “unacceptable conduct and performance” following comments made during a public hearing on the town’s Shellfish Ordinance.

That session also highlighted what seemed to be longstanding issues between the selectmen and the harbor committee. Selectmen highlighted reasons for not initially signing the appointment papers.

Donna Brewer said she has long been concerned that the committee has been dominated by members of two families. Brewer said it wasn’t personal, but would like to see wider representation.

Evelyn Duncan said she felt the selectmen had not been getting enough proactive input from the chairman and the rest of the committee, particularly on infrastructure issues at the fish pier.

As the newest member of the board, John Steed said he did not know enough about the issues to weigh in on them particularly since his signature would not have made a difference. So he chose not to sign.

Although John Robbins was reluctant to discuss the issue, he implied that Hilton Turner had been chairman of the committee long enough.

Committee members defended Turner’s leadership noting that he “kept things moving smoothly” and that it didn’t matter who was chairman. “It doesn’t constrain me from speaking my mind,” said one member.

Some committee members expressed concern about who might be named to replace Turner. Committee member Richard Larrabee Jr. noted that when he’s fishing, he can’t always make it back to town in time for the meetings. He asked if the selectmen had anyone in mind. He got no answer.

Committee members raised other issues. Ryan Larrabee said he was concerned about communication, noting that he was not informed about the decision to suspend the harbormaster.

“Communication is really poor,” he said, adding that committee members should at least get an email on issues relating to the harbor such as the harbormaster’s suspension.

Steed agreed communication could be better, but Chairman Chris Betts pointed out that the chairman of the harbor committee had been notified. It was left up to the chairman to notify members, he said.

Selectmen also noted some concerns, including the way the committee has treated their representative in the past. Betts said the committee generally feels that the selectman is “intruding” when he or she comments at those committee meetings. Charles Turner said as much during the earlier session.

“The harbor committee can run the harbor without the interference of the selectmen and the town manager,” he said.

Those comments may have affected his chances of being reappointed.

On Monday, selectmen briefly discussed the harbor committee noting that they need to correct the current rotation of members. Over the years, as members have resigned and others appointed, all terms have shifted so they start and end at the same time. They discussed the need to stagger those terms, which likely will require an amendment to the harbor ordinance.

Selectmen also said they need to work with the committee to ensure that accurate records are kept on all maintenance and training done at the fish pier.