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May 22. 2013 9:40PM

Salem town manager defends contract for Town Hall work

SALEM — Though accused of improperly awarding a contract for the renovation of the lower section of the Town Hall last year, Town Manager Keith Hickey stood by his decision at the start of Monday night’s Board of Selectmen’s meeting.

Hickey said he wasn’t out of line when he hired RAM Construction for the $34,825 contract, though his actions have been publicly criticized.

The majority of complaints voiced by residents were due to the fact that one of the subcontracted companies is owned by the husband of Salem Finance Director Jane Savastano.

“I thought this would be the appropriate time to bring this issue forward and talk about it publicly,” Hickey said Monday night. “We want people to understand the process and the bigger picture.”

During last year’s budget season, the board voted to close the former Mary Foss School and remodel space that was once a state Division of Motor Vehicles office for use by several social service agencies displaced by the closure.

With a new fiscal year beginning Jan. 1 and no funds available to keep the Foss School open beyond that time, Hickey said he needed to act fast. Under current town policy he is authorized to waive the usual bidding process during emergency situations, he said.

“The goal was to move outside agencies to other places by year’s end,” Hickey said.

By early December, Hickey said he had obtained bids from two nearby vendors — RAM Construction and L & B Construction Management.

Both companies were asked to provide documentation, at which time Hickey said the lower-priced bidder asked if they could subcontract with Atlantic Power & Design for the project, noting that Mark Savastano is that company’s owner.

Hickey said it was permissible provided that Savastano’s firm was licensed and insured, but said he did ask for the bid to be submitted directly to avoid public conflict.

“I wanted to keep that separation to maintain some integrity in the process,” Hickey said. “Time was of the essence.”

RAM Construction was awarded the contract, which came in about $5,000 cheaper than the one proposed by L & B on Dec. 18. The Salem Caregivers charity moved into Salem Town Hall in early February.

“I accepted, reviewed and approved the selected vendors,” Hickey said. “No one in the finance department had any knowledge or involvement of my approval of this contract.”

Board members supported their town manager.

A locksmith by trade, Hargreaves said he himself had been accused of acting improperly by simply selling an item to RAM Construction officials.

“At no time did my company step foot in (Town Hall) to install anything,” Hargreaves said. “But my name is still getting thrown around.”

“I don’t think anything inappropriate was done,” Chairman Everett McBride, Jr. agreed.

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