• Orange Town Hall on Prospect Street. FILE PHOTO

For the Athol Daily news
Published: 7/12/2018 6:17:11 AM

ORANGE — Orange has a new town administrator after a yearlong search with some turmoil.

Gabriele Voelker, 60, of New Salem accepted a contract from the Orange Selectboard Wednesday night. The contract, effective immediately expires in July of 2021 and guarantees a salary of $82,725, with 1.5 percent increases in salary for the second and third years.

After the Selectboard unanimously voted to sign the contract, Police Chief Craig Lundgren, who was also the chairman of the Town Administrator Search Committee, congratulated Voelker.

There was a sigh of relief in the room following Voelker’s appointment, and the various members of town government, including members of the School Committee, the Selectboard and the town clerk, clapped and said, “Finally.”

In the past few months, as the candidates for town administrator were whittled down to a few finalists, there was much debate about who should take the position and whether the search process was done fairly.

For example, former Selectboard Chairman Richard Sheridan contacted the state Ethics Commission in March to file complaints against his colleagues Ryan Mailloux, the current Selectboard Chairman, and current Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Jane Peirce, alleging that Mailloux and Peirce showed inappropriate favoritism toward Voelker as a candidate.

Sheridan subsequently resigned from the Selectboard one meeting after Mailloux, Peirce and Selectboard members Tom Smith and James Cornwell supported Voelker for the role. Although Sheridan did not give explicit reasons for his resignation, he was the only member of the Selectboard to choose someone other than Voelker as the top pick for the job.

Timeline of events

The search for a new town administrator began in 2017 following the resignation of previous Town Administrator Diana M. Schindler on Aug. 11 — Schindler had been on a leave of absence for several months before her resignation.

The Selectboard created and charged a Town Administrator Search Committee with screening 22 candidates for the job, leading to a months-long interview process. All the while, Voelker was acting town administrator, as well as her official roles of treasurer and finance director.

The results of the committee’s interviews led to some controversy, however.

On March 21, Lundgren attended a Selectboard meeting to present the committee’s three finalists. The Selectboard was to interview all three finalists and choose which of them to hire.

But Voelker was absent among the three finalists. Mailloux, the Selectboard’s vice chairman at the time, called the exclusion of Voelker a “slap in the face” and asserted that she should be a finalist.

Mailloux said Voelker had proven her abilities and dedication to the town, while the three presented finalists had not, and that Voelker had an excellent educational background. He also speculated that there might have been some “behind the scenes” dealings that led to Voelker’s exclusion.

Peirce agreed that Voelker should be a finalist and be given an interview. She said that it is a common courtesy to interview the person currently acting in the available position. Peirce and Mailloux’s support caused Sheridan’s ethics complaints.

Mailloux characterized the search process as having been done without integrity, and it caused anger among committee members, several of whom showed up at the March 28 Selectboard meeting to denounce Mailloux’s assertions.

One of the three finalists withdrew their application, which Sheridan speculated may have been because of the controversy.

Eventually, the Selectboard decided that the two of the three finalists still interested in the job, as well as two more to be selected by the committee, should be interviewed.

The four new “finalists” were original finalists Candace Ouillette Gaumond of Ware, the administrative assistant to the town administrator and Selectboard in Wilbraham; Johanna Swain of Barre, the executive secretary and acting town administrator in West Brookfield; as well as the search committee’s new picks Kerrie Carnes Salwa of Clinton, economic development director in Leominster, and Voelker.

After interviewing the four applicants on April 25, each Selectboard member declared their pick for the position. Peirce, Mailloux, Smith and Cornwell chose Voelker, while Sheridan chose Carnes Salwa. At the next meeting on May 2, Sheridan abruptly resigned.

Moving forward

Now that she is officially the town administrator, Voelker will have to leave her position as treasurer. However, there is currently no one available to fill the treasurer position

This week, the Selectboard — having sought legal counsel — appointed Voelker as a volunteer treasurer. She will continue doing the job without pay, in addition to her role as town administrator, until a treasurer is hired.

Voelker has to report to the Selectboard for review after 60 days, 90 days and then, annually. She also has the authority to hire staff, including a human resources administrator and treasurer.

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