CLAREMONT — City councilors came to odds on Wednesday over how much jurisdiction the council should have over city operational matters following a council vote directing all Department of Public Works vehicles to be painted fire-yellow.
Short three members at Wednesday’s regular meeting, the Claremont City Council voted 4-2 to order all public works vehicles to be custom painted fire-yellow, which is presently the color of the majority of the department fleet.
The council’s vote came after learning of a proposal by directors in the Department of Public Works to City Manager Ed Morris to begin phasing out custom-painted fire-yellow vehicles in the department in favor of factory-red, which the directors say would reduce the vehicle cost and lessen the wait-time to receive the vehicles.
“The direct cost savings due to the cost of painting may be a small amount on an annual basis, but over time the cost savings add up,” Director Alex Gleeson wrote to Morris. “We feel this money can be better utilized on other projects.”
The cost of custom paint is about $695 for smaller vehicles like Ford F550 series trucks and $350 for larger vehicles like dump trucks or sweepers, according to Gleeson. The department has 23 Ford F550 or similarly-sized trucks and 12 larger vehicles.
Additionally, custom paint jobs can delay the vehicle acquisition by two to seven months or longer, depending on the dealership or its orders in cue. These delays sometimes trigger additional costs to the city department by having to keep other vehicles in service, which increases their wear or need for repairs.
Several councilors objected to the color-change proposal, saying that the current yellow better distinguishes the department trucks as city work vehicles and that transitioning to a new color would create a “hodge podge” over the next several years.
“Back in the ‘80s we had mismatched trucks of all different colors,” said Councilor Andrew O’Hearne. “And now the [Department of] Public Works has been brought up to a level of uniformity.”
O’Hearne also suggested the council cut the Department of Public Works’ budget should the department switch to a cheaper vehicle paint.
“If it’s a cost issue, maybe we should cut the budget for the [Department of] Public Works back,” O’Hearne said. “Because apparently they don’t want to be spending the money we appropriate yearly for these leases.”
But the concerning issue, according to some councilors, was not about vehicle colors but the council’s venture into operating decisions outside their traditional jurisdiction.
“We have intruded ourselves into an operational concern,” said Assistant Mayor Allen Damren. “We may rue the day that we did that, as it’s certainly not the way we should be doing our business.”
It is not uncommon, generally speaking, for members of selectboards or city councils to share their personal experience or insight in meetings regarding specific department activities, such as a road paving project or vehicle maintenance. However, the Claremont City Council went considerably further by turning their color preference into a directive.
Damren told The Eagle Times on Thursday that the council’s motion surprised him.
Morris had opened the discussion to hear what the council had to say about the department’s proposal, Damren explained. Morris should have still had the decision afterward regarding the vehicle colors.
“The motion didn’t really need to be made,” Damren said.
Damren said he worries that such council habits could give the city a poor reputation as a workplace among existing employees or prospective hires.
Damren and Councilor James Contois both voted in the minority against the motion.
“I think we are micromanaging if we cannot allow the [Department of] Public Works director and city manager to pick out the color of a truck,” said City Councilor James Contois. “I think we have just wasted a lot of time micromanaging in an area where we shouldn’t be.”
O’Hearne admitted the vehicle-color topic “should not be at the council level” but voted for the motion anyway.
Other councilors who supported the directive included Jon Stone, Deborah Matteau, and Dale Girard.
Mayor Charlene Lovett and Councilors Erica Sweetser and Nick Koloski were not in attendance.
Damren told his colleagues that council intervention into department matters “does a disservice” to Morris, Gleeson, and Department of Public Works Assistant Director Jeremy Clay.
“We have two people [in the Department of Public Works] that we’ve hired and placed great faith in,” Damren said, “And I see no reason why [we’re getting involved]. It’s an operational concern, not a policy item.”
Municipal bodies like the city council primarily oversee budgetary and policy decisions. The council’s only employee, the city manager, is the direct supervisor to department heads and other city employees.
The council previously broached this vehicle color discussion on March 10, when department heads were in attendance. During that meeting, Clay explained that his department settled on “factory-red” as the new color because it “stood out well and was easy to get.”
While fire-yellow has been the standard color in recent years, there are actually five different colors in the department’s fleet, including a hunter-green vacuum truck and other colors among the smaller vehicles, according to Morris.
“For years they just bought the cheap, off-the-floor vehicle with whatever color they could get for the directors or meter-takers,” Morris said.