Salem Selectman Stephen Campbell serves as a watchdog over town government, calling it out on its excesses and reining in spending.
That’s an important role, one that taxpayers value.
So there’s nothing wrong with Campbell’s message. His methods, however, leave something to be desired.
Campbell is known for his aggressive questioning of town spending — yet too often he is not just aggressive but abrasive. And now, his fellow selectmen and some town employees say he has gone too far. Campbell’s four colleagues on the Board of Selectmen are calling for an independent investigation into his behavior.
The controversy stems from the retirement of former chief building inspector Sam Zannini effective Jan. 1 after his position was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure.
Campbell apparently was unaware of a $42,000 severance payment to Zannini and on Feb. 1 went to Town Hall to speak with Town Manager Keith Hickey about it. Unable to meet with Hickey, Campbell discussed the severance payment with Human Resources Director Molly McKean.
McKean said Campbell was “aggressive and intimidating” toward her in his questioning about the severance package.
“It came across as aggressive and hostile,” McKean said at this week’s meeting of the selectmen. “It was very clear to me he was angry.”
Hickey told the selectmen that three other town employees have threatened the town with hostile work environment claims after encounters with Campbell.
“It puts them in a very uncomfortable position,” Hickey said. “There is an issue here that is potentially putting the town at risk of litigation.”
Campbell said that he did not think he was out of line in seeking the information.
“I’m sorry if you found anything I said intimidating,” Campbell told McKean. “I don’t see that I did anything wrong.”
There isn’t anything wrong with Campbell’s seeking information on how and on what the town is spending the taxpayers’ money. That’s his job. But Campbell needs to remember the old saw that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar.
Campbell clearly recognizes that his role as a spending watchdog does not win him any popularity with town employees. If common courtesy were not sufficient, that would be another reason for Campbell to take extra care to treat Salem employees with respect and professionalism.
Selectmen’s Chairman Patrick Hargreaves defended Campbell’s “passionate” desire to get answers. Selectman Everett McBride said the issue had become a distraction at a time town leaders should be focusing on the budget.
“I just think we all have to be respectful of one another, that’s all,” McBride said.
At the suggestion of Selectman James Keller, the board voted 4-0 to recommend an investigation be conducted by the county attorney, attorney general or other investigator. Campbell abstained from the vote.
“No employee in this town should feel intimidated by a member of this board — never, for any reason,” he said. “This is pretty serious stuff.”
Indeed, it is serious. And while an investigation is unlikely to result in any concrete action against Campbell, it should serve as a stern rebuke, which is sorely needed.