RINDGE — A group of residents has lodged a formal complaint with New Hampshire’s top professional-licensing agency, accusing Planning Director Kirk Stenersen of breaching state ethics rules.
The complaint, filed last month with the N.H. Office of Professional Licensure and Certification, alleges that Stenersen, who owns the Rindge engineering firm Higher Design, has violated industry standards of conduct by mixing his work for the town and for private clients.
OPLC, a Concord-based government agency that oversees health-care and technical licensing in the state, told the Rindge residents Nov. 12 that their complaint is under review, according to Jeff Dickler, one of its authors. In addition to possible discipline from state officials, Dickler said the group is looking into local measures to help resolve concerns, which could include strengthening the town’s ethics rules for public officials.
Stenersen did not respond to multiple requests for comment in the past week on the OPLC complaint.
OPLC told the local group Nov. 12 that Stenersen had been notified of its complaint, according to Dickler. Stenersen has 30 days to respond to the allegations.
That grievance is not the first time a group of Rindge residents has criticized Stenersen’s conduct as planning director, which those critics say has unfairly benefitted his private clients.
In July, as the planning board weighed a proposal for 20 new homes off Route 119, nearly 70 people signed a petition asking the board to remove Stenersen from his role and to replace him with “an individual without interests in the building and/or real estate industry in this town.”
Because he represented the developers in that residential project, Stenersen did not advise the planning board in his public capacity, board members said at the time. Still, Rindge resident Judy Unger-Clark, who lives near the now-approved development and co-authored the OPLC complaint, called the arrangement “duplicitous and inappropriate” because Stenersen has significant influence with the board.
“The planning board needs to realize that this is unethical,” she said at a public hearing in June.
Stenersen declined to comment on those concerns at the time.
Both the planning board and selectboard have declined to take any action against him.
“It was a slap in the face,” Unger-Clark said of those decisions in a recent news release about the OPLC complaint. “Our Planning Board, which is supposed to look out for our town’s best interests, chose to ignore Kirk Stenersen’s conflicts. We had hoped to resolve this locally, but obviously that didn’t work out.”
In their complaint to the state agency, the residents have requested that it suspend or revoke Stenersen’s engineering license, accusing him of violating New Hampshire’s administrative code for that industry.
Among the concerns presented, they allege Stenersen has failed to disclose his financial ties to developers and has requested the planning board waive regulations for his clients.
New Hampshire ethics standards prohibit any engineer working for, or advising, a government entity from participating in consideration of, or action on, projects they’re also involved in privately.
The OPLC complaint cites several projects before Rindge’s planning board, in addition to the Route 119 development, in which it claims Stenersen had a financial stake. Those include a proposal earlier this year to build around 60 apartments, which Stenersen reviewed as planning director even though his father-in-law works for the developer. (Stenersen noted that relationship at an early hearing on the project, according to meeting minutes.)
Planning board members shrugged off residents’ ethics concerns over the summer, noting that Stenersen didn’t advise them as a public official on the Route 119 project.
At a meeting in July, board Chairman Jonah Ketola said Stenersen has recused himself numerous times when there was a conflict with his private work. Ketola has also called Stenersen “an asset to the town,” noting that his pay is much lower than previous planning directors earned due to budget cuts.
“He’s not doing it to benefit himself,” Ketola said in July. “He’s serving the town.”
But the OPLC complainants have said that because Stenersen is involved in drafting regulatory changes as planning director, he could also advantage his clients more broadly.
“He was hired by the Planning Board to review submitted plans and make recommendations that represent the best interests of the town and not what is best for his business,” resident Bruce Gavagan said in the recent news release.
After OPLC investigates the complaint, the agency’s Board of Professional Engineers — a panel of industry workers — will review the matter in a non-public session, according to its website. That board may either dismiss the complaint, issue a confidential letter of concern or move forward with disciplinary action. OPLC officials could not be reached this week for more details on the timeline of their inquiry.
But the Rindge group isn’t waiting on the outcome of that process.
Dickler told The Sentinel last week that he and Unger-Clark may introduce a warrant article at town meeting next year to strengthen Rindge’s conflict-of-interest rules for public officials.
With the deadline for citizen-submitted warrant articles approaching, Dickler said he was not yet sure whether that idea will come to fruition. He did not have any specifics on what might be included in the proposal.