atrubia@ricentral.com

EXETER – After being appointed to the position of town planner last month, Mark Carruolo alerted the Exeter Town Council that, due to personal reasons, he would no longer be able to accept the position, leaving the position vacant once again.

The previous town planner, Ashley Hahn-Sweet, resigned from the position in September, leading the town to search for a new planner. An interview committee was established, and three candidates reviewed for the job, with the council ultimately deciding to appoint Carruolo, a former planner for Warwick, to fill the position.

During his interview, Carruolo had proposed working irregular hours, at least compared to the previous planner. And on Monday, the town council was set to review Carruolo’s proposed working hours. However, Carruolo told the council last week that he would no longer be able to accept the position, citing personal reasons.

“This was part of a discussion we began last month,” council president Cal Ellis explained. “Unfortunately, it’s become, at this point, a moot question, because the planner we had hoped to engage has indicated that he is not going to accept the position.”

Ellis directed town clerk Lynn Hawkins to post the vacant position publicly, seeking interested candidates to apply for, and ultimately be appointed to, the town planner.

However, Christine Heart-Skaggs, the town’s social services director, raised concerns about comments made during the previous council meeting in October regarding the appointment of a new town planner. During that meeting, councilor Frank DiGregorio, who was also part of the aforementioned interview committee, made comments regarding the need to hire a new town planner as quickly as possible.

In his comments, DiGregorio said that the newly hired planning board clerk was “seriously overwhelmed” without a town planner. He explained that the new planning board clerk had relied on Hahn-Sweet to assist her in becoming as “efficient as the previous clerk.” And with Hahn-Sweet’s resignation, on top of the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, DiGregorio said it would be paramount to hire a new town planner sooner rather than later.

“The new clerk had relied on the [Hahn-Sweet] to assist her with becoming as efficient as the previous clerk,” DiGregorio said in October. “And while that was already a daunting task that was made all the more difficult because of the COVID-19 pandemic, [Hahn-Sweet’s] resignation has left the planning department and planning board seriously understaffed to the detriment of the town.”

At Monday’s town council meeting, Heart-Skaggs called on DiGregorio to apologize for his comments regarding the planning board and its new clerk.

“Mr. DiGregorio has been in the public eye for years and should know by now to weigh his words carefully, so as to not plant misinformation in people’s minds,” she said. “Also, he should know that personnel matters, such that he stated, are to be discussed in executive sessions, not in public meetings.”

She went on to say that the planning board and clerk had professionally fulfilled their duties, all without the support from a planner.

“I am surprised that no other council members stopped Mr. DiGregorio from continuing on,” Heart-Skaggs continued. “For all current and future council members, I am asking that each of you understand that words matter, especially in this day and age.”

DiGregorio apologized for his comments, adding that they were only meant to reflect the need to fill the planner position, not as a criticism of anyone else’s job performance.

“Upon reviewing my statements, it’s now clear to me that it left an unwarranted impression that the planning board and clerk are unable to fulfill their duties without a planner,” he said. “They are indeed capable and are commendably performing their own duties, as well as putting forth additional efforts temporarily, for the lack of having a planner.”

“Although I spoke without malice, I would like to apologize for the perception that my statement was a negative connotation against the fine work of our planning board and clerk,” he continued. “The truth is, I believe that our entire planning department has risen to the challenge of successfully fulfilling the duties of the planning department without a key player–a planner–something that was further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Like all other town officials, boards and staff, DiGregorio said, the “planning, zoning and building departments are all serving the town of Exeter in a professional and exemplary manner.”

“Again, my apologies to the clerk and the planning board,” he said.  

 The vacant town planner position will be posted publicly on the Exeter website.

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