By Phyllis A. Muzeroll
CLAREMONT, NH–City Manager Guy Santagate finds himself between a rock and a hard place over what would seemingly be a simple matter: appointing the interim Director of Public Works as permanent director. Scott Sweet was made interim director following the departure of Tom Woodley last year. However, Section 32 in the City Charter requires the DPW Director and the fire and police chiefs to live in Claremont. Sweet lives on the Claremont-Cornish line. If, as Santagate told the City
Council Wednesday night, he goes ahead and appoints Sweet to the position permanently and Sweet remains a non-resident, he, as City manager, will be violating the City Charter, and violating the City Charter violates state law.
Santagate said that “After we did a search for the best qualified person, there was no doubt that Scott Sweet is that person.” As City manager, Santagate is charged with doing the best job for the City, noted legal counsel who was asked to review the situation, including hiring those he deems best for positions with the City.
The residency requirement was put into the Charter in 2003, said Santagate. “I had issue with it at that time but didn’t win that fight.”
City attorney Jane Taylor, not comfortable with making a determination on the matter, solicited the opinion of attorney Robert Carey, with the law firm of Orr & Reno in Concord, NH. It was Carey’s legal opinion that Section 32 was not a valid requirement for the DPW director because his residency is not related to public safety. Carey noted that DPW deals with winter storms, floods and utilities, and that it is not the director but the department’s employees who respond to the emergencies in the field. He also noted that Sweet only lives 10 minutes from the DPW office and that even if he lived in town, he could live in a part of town that is further away than 10 minutes. Carey said that the charter puts the City manager “in an untenable position.” He added that it’s the City manager’s job to pick the best qualified people for jobs, but he must also follow state law that says a City manager must enforce the charter. If Santagate hires Sweet for the permanent position, Sweet would have 18 months in which to move to Claremont; if he did not, Santagate would be in violation of the charter. And if Sweet did not move to Claremont, Santagate, in following the charter would have to fire him and in doing so, would be enforcing an “unconstitutional residency requirement,” said Carey, something that could lead to an employment lawsuit.
Options the City has in the matter include requesting the council propose revising that particular section of the charter or to seek a declaratory judgment from Superior Court, an action that could cost around $5,000.
Mayor Charlene Lovett commented that with the council “just getting this tonight,” there was a need for a more in-depth discussion on the matter, and she called for the issue to be taken up at the Feb. 24th meeting.
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