Put aside the merits of the 20-home subdivision plan now before the Rindge Planning Board. Whether that plan is approved or not is beside the point, and its fate ought not to get caught up in the abysmal judgment of the board members and other town officials.
No, the much larger issue is that the town is allowing its entire planning process to be tainted by letting its town planner — the one person paid and entrusted specifically to professionally vet development plans and make sure they’re in the best interest of the town and its residents — also be the paid representative presenting some developments to the planning board.
It matters not whether Kirk Stenersen is trusted by the board members, as he clearly is. It matters not whether he’s removed his planning director’s cap in this case and stepped across the table to don one with King’s Way LLC stamped on the front. It’s the wrong way of doing the public’s business.
Stenersen, a professional civil engineer by trade, has been lauded by town officials for his expertise. He is well-qualified to be the town’s planner. However, he’s also continued to take work representing developers, including on projects within the town.
In those cases, as with the King’s Way plan, he’s “recused” himself from acting on the town’s behalf in order to avoid the obvious conflict that would occur if he were to represent both sides. That would be quite the embarrassing situation, especially if Stenersen found himself at odds with himself over, say, wetlands mitigation, lighting requirements or sight lines for curb cuts.
By avoiding that direct conflict, though, he’s also leaving the town without its most-qualified expert to objectively assess the merits of those plans. Worse, he’s stepping onto the other side to advocate for them.
Imagine if Jayson Tatum were to not only step aside every time the Celtics played the Miami Heat, but also actually suited up for the Heat, scoring 40 points. Now picture Brad Stevens saying, “It’s OK, because he recused himself.” Or think of a Patriots player who, despite “recusing” himself, stood on the opposite sideline and could share all the Pats’ plays with the other team.
Aside from their personal trust in Stenersen, the defense put forth, by at least one board member, was that he’s working for the town on a discount, so it’s a good deal. Sure, and the fox will gladly guard the henhouse for free.
In small New Hampshire towns, it’s not uncommon to find volunteer officials, and even paid staff, holding multiple positions. In the case of planning board, school board or selectboard members, there are times when a conflict appears, and they can — and should — reasonably step aside to avoid it.
It’s also a real benefit to find someone who, like Stenersen, is well-qualified, to serve on staff. But there should not ever be a situation where a paid town employee (or contracted one) is making a decision whether to do their job or switch sides. No one can be expected to serve two masters when those masters’ interests may be at odds. The town planner ought not to be taking clients whose projects fall within the scope of his duty to the town.
Further, even in cases where Stenersen isn’t in direct conflict, a project before him as planner may affect those on which he is, which could sway his advice to the board or developers. Simply put, having a private stake in town development means there will always be an inherent conflict with being the town planner.
The Rindge Planning Board has failed the townspeople by allowing such a situation. Stenersen ought to be told to turn down any projects that would come before the board, or step away from the position for good.