Saturday, March 17, 2007

Luck of the Irish not with Cherry Hill

I promised a reporter (who is also now a born again blogger) that I would be up and running (or I should say snowshoeing) on St. Patrick’s Day. And since we’re both Irish, I figured I had better keep my promise. So here goes:

Today’s Front Page Gazette story by Nick Grabbe (above the fold, no less) “Cherry Hill Boss Resigns” was about as surprising to me as the announcement that Select Board Czar Anne Awad and Select board minion Robie Hubley have been secretly married for a while.

Dan Engstrom may be a decent golfer (I heard he took a lot of weekends off to play at tournaments) and turf manager (with a degree from Umass Stockbridge a most reputable institution) but anybody with an ounce of sense would almost instantly realize he’s not a brain surgeon…I mean, MANAGER.

Mr. Grabbe called me last week and wanted my files (that go back 19 years) from 1996 where Engstrom was found guilty of sexual harassment. It was my first use of Public Documents law and I had to appeal the town turning down my request.

State Public Records Supervisor Alan Cote agreed with me and the town had to release the investigation, with the name of the young women blacked out for her protection.

Now if it had been a DPW worker, firefighter, or police officer found guilty of sexual harassment in overly PC Amherst you can bet they would have been summarily fired. But not the “Boss” of the golf course. I think at the time Town Manager Barry Del Castilho (who married his secretary) figured Big Old Dan was irreplaceable, especially in mid-season.

Engstrom did absorb a one-month suspension (with pay however), and I’m fairly sure the part-time seasonal help did the pesticide applications, even though they did not have proper state license for handling potentially deadly chemicals (the neighbors will be happy to hear this now, but that’s what they get for the reverse NIMBY lobbying that brought us Cherry Hill in the first place).

Another disconcerting event for neighbors occurred in 2000 when Engstrom burned the remains of the old clubhouse to avoid the $55 per ton dump (I mean landfill) fees. Town Meeting had been told they could build a 1,500 square foot new Clubhouse for $100,000. I told Town Meeting they were out of their minds and it would cost at least $130,000.

Former Conservation guru Pete Westover (Supervisor of Dan Engstrom at the time, although he had no business or management experience but was great at playing in the woods) in response to a question from the floor about huge bonfires for almost a month replied, “As far as I know brush was the only thing burned.”

So I went to the site early one morning and started digging (literally). And with the very first turn of the spade uncovered burned nails—some of recent vintage and some colonial vintage (the Clubhouse, a former barn, was ancient).

I complained to the Department of Environmental Protection, the fire chief did an investigation and Engstrom finally admitted they “accidentally” included construction debris with the brush, with a housing project less than a football field downwind. The DEP found them in violation but issued no fines.

Five years ago I noticed in a budget spreadsheet (acquired thru Public Documents Law) that “building maintenance” had gone from a budget projection of $2,000 to $32,333 (a Big Dig style overrun) in FY01 and then back down to $2,000 in FY2002. Now you have to wonder how a brand new building requires $32,333 in maintenance?

Yeah, they had fudged the books by using an extra $32,000 to during construction, thus making the $100,000 Clubhouse a $132,000 Clubhouse (pretty damn close to my prediction to town meeting in November, 1999).

And they were to cheap to use an actual contractor to do the foundation work so they stole a crew of DPW workers (and a backhoe) for a day or two and used the town engineer for a full-week to do the blueprints for the Clubhouse as well, thus impacting the DPW budget thousands of dollars.

In March 2004 Dan Engstrom testified before the Select board “things I believe are turning around” in response to then-Chair Carl Seppala’s question about current revenues/expenditures. Yeah, right.

That year Cherry Hill went on to lose $127,201, the second highest loss in history ($136,000 in FY01 being the record--but $32,333 of that was from the Clubhouse overrun).

About three weeks ago Select Board member Rob Kusner called me to complain about something I posted at and in the course of the conversation let slip that the rookie Town Manager Larry Shaffer had paid a surprise visit to Cherry Hill in early August and was not impressed with what he found.

On August 17’th Shaffer issued a brief press release saying Engstrom was no longer manager and was now a groundskeeper and would be working year round rather than getting five months off with pay.

Of course Engstrom would still be collecting his $60,000 annual salary (more than the highest paid classroom teacher in the venerable Amherst school system). And, although his business has required $900,000 in taxation for operations over his tenure, Engstrom doesn’t even live or pay taxes in Amherst.

So NO… I’m not surprised he “resigned”. What do I think happened? Sexual harassment again? Maybe. But, during his one-month paid vacation he was required to undergo professional counseling.

Theft? Maybe. Cherry Hill is a CASH business. Six years ago Dan left over a thousand dollars in cash in the temporary clubhouse overnight from a week-end tournament Cherry Hill hosted and the shed was broken into and the cash disappeared. Police never found the culprit.

For the Record I issued this statement on the Town Meeting listserve yesterday (mainly to scoop today’s Gazette article):

I do not celebrate the demise of Dan Engstrom. I have ALWAYS felt he was in way over his head as a manager--and certainly others in town administration should have noticed that. The real villains are former Town Manager Barry Del Castilho, the Select Board, the Finance Committee and Town Meeting. And the real losers are the taxpayers who have thus far spent over $900,000 on the operation of a sub-par golf business.


Tommy said...

Larry Kelly, you're so cool! What a gossip filled first post! I'll definitely link to you. Fight on!

LarryK4 said...

Thanks Tommy (you da man). But—just for the record-- it's Kelley with two E's. My mom always insisted it was more Irish. When I finally got to go to the homeland a few years ago the one E spelling was ubiquitous—an electrician, a bar (of course), a graphics company all had the one E spelling painted on their signs. So I finally asked the village elder what’s up with that and she confirmed that the two E spelling is “ancient”.