By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Accusations that Town Manager Keith Hickey violated town bidding procedures prompted him to speak out at a selectmen’s meeting last night.
Hickey defended his decision to award a Town Hall renovation contract without advertising for bids and hiring a firm that employed town Finance Director Jane Savastano’s husband as a subcontractor.
Hickey raised the issue in response to comments made in a newspaper column Thursday that indicated the $34,825 contract was awarded illegally.
“All I have is my integrity,” Hickey told selectmen. “I’m not going to screw it up with a $40,000 contract.”
Selectmen discussed the issue for much of their two-hour meeting. They also decided on how an assistant town manager will be hired.
Hickey said he was forced to quickly choose two bidders in December before the new fiscal year began Jan. 1 so he could use leftover money in the town budget. No money for the project had been appropriated for this year, he said.
“I just didn’t have time,” Hickey said.
He said town policy allows him to waive the bid process in an emergency situation.
The bottom floor of Town Hall was being renovated to provide space for social service agencies in an area formerly occupied by the state Division of Motor Vehicles, an office that relocated to Main Street. The agencies were moving out of the former Mary Foss School, a dilapidated building shuttered by the town.
Hickey said he was justified in awarding the contract to RAM Construction over L&B Construction Management, which are both local companies. RAM’s bid was better and about $5,000 less than L&B’s, he said.
Hickey said he didn’t object when RAM owner Rick Munroe asked if he could use Atlantic Power & Design as a subcontractor even though the company is owned by the finance director’s husband, Mark Savastano.
The town manager said it was permissible as long as Mark Savastano and his firm were licensed and insured. Hickey said to an avoid an appearance of impropriety, he asked the bids be submitted directly to him.
When the Savastanos showed up at the meeting with their lawyer Chris Savastano, Selectman Patrick Hargreaves asked that the discussion be tabled until the town’s attorney could be present. The board decided to continue the discussion.
Hargreaves, a locksmith, said he was also accused of impropriety and did nothing more than sell a lock to RAM.
“I heard my name being thrown around last week,” he said. “At no time did my company step foot in this building to install anything.”
Selectman Stephen Campbell said he wished Hickey informed them of the bid waiver earlier. Selectmen Chairman Everett McBride Jr. said although there could have been better communication, he didn’t find fault with what Hickey did.
“I don’t think anything inappropriately was done,” McBride said.
Selectman Michael Lyons agreed.
“I think we should stand by him,” he said.
Selectman James Keller said he didn’t think any further action by the board was needed.
Also last night, selectmen voted 4-1 to begin the search for an assistant town manager. Campbell voted in opposition, concerned the town would be paying too much to fill the position.
The individual would fill the position being vacated by Community Development Director William Scott, who accepted a similar position in Amesbury, Mass. Scott is leaving June 24 after 12 years on the job.
The assistant town manager — a newly-created position — would lead the community development staff and supervise some town departments, Hickey said. The salary range would be between $80,000 and $93,000.