Hearing office sustains town’s charges in Hampton wood case

A Hampton town employee could face disciplinary action after a hearing officer ruled in favor of the town during a civil service hearing last week.
Bob Henke, a section 75 hearing officer, ruled that the evidence presented during the hearing sustained the town’s charges that Malcolm Pratt, a longtime employee of the town’s highway department, disobeyed orders from his superiors and used town property improperly.
Henke recommended two weeks suspension without pay, but Herb Sady, highway superintendent, will have the final say on discipline and no decision had been made as of Tuesday.
Pratt requested the hearing after Sady filed charges against him for allegedly disobeying orders from his superiors on two different occasions and for the impermissible use of a town truck.
Sady and Nate Saxton, deputy highway superintendent, accused Pratt of taking wood after he was told not to and using a town truck to then transport that wood to his property. They also accused him of failing to return all the wood after being asked to do so.
Pratt admitted to taking the wood, but said the owner of the property where the wood was located had given him permission to take it. There was, however, no evidence or testimony presented during last Thursday’s hearing to support that assertion.
Pratt, along with Saxton and Earl VanGuilder, a participant in the county’s alternative sentencing program, was part of a work detail assigned by Sady to cut and clear wood from side of Hills Pond Road on July 9.
That stretch of road, along with other areas in community, sustained heavy damage during a violent thunderstorm on July 3 that toppled trees and forced the closure of many roads. While town employees, with the assistance of the Hampton Volunteer Fire Department and local residents were able to clear many of the roadways enough so they could be opened by the following day, much of the debris from the storm was left on road sides.
The highway department began cleaning that debris on July 7 and had progressed to the area of Hills Pond and South Roads by July 9.
Sady said it was common practice for the highway department to cut and throw the wood within the town’s right of way over the bank when possible. In the absence of a bank, the wood is either picked up and disposed of or left in a pile on the side of the road, depending on the type of wood.
“Usually the hardwood is cut up and left. The softwood gets left there because no one wants it so we pick it up and haul it off,” Sady said.
After loading one of the trucks, Pratt and VanGuilder deposited the wood at a cemetery near Pratt’s home on Golf Course Road even though Saxton said he instructed him to bring the wood to Joe Williams’ home. Saxton and Sady both testified that it was common for the town to deposit brush and wood either at the town’s sandpit or at Williams, although Pratt disputed the latter site was a common dumping area.
Saxton said he learned that the wood wasn’t where it was supposed to be when he went to deposit the final load of wood at the end of the day.
“I noticed that no other loads had been brought to Joe’s,” he said.
On Saturday, Sady said he received a call from Pete Tatko who he described as “irate” about wood that had been cut and taken off his property.
Sady questioned Saxton on Monday and he told him that Pratt had taken the wood. Sady said he then drove to Pratt’s home and saw two piles of wood.
“I’m not a log expert but the wood resembled the logs taken from Pete’s,” Sady said.
On Tuesday, Sady asked Pratt to return the wood to the town office. The following day Pratt did bring back a load of wood but he brought it to the town’s sand pit.
Although he admitted he took some wood, Pratt testified that he wasn’t aware of a practice that prohibited him from taking the wood. He also said he didn’t feel he used the town truck improperly because he had to check on the condition of roads near his home and therefore didn’t put unnecessary mileage on the truck.
In his closing summation, Pratt’s attorney, Rob Winn, argued that the highway department’s lack of a written policy stating what should be done with wood left on the side of the road created the problem.
“Without a policy you can run into problems and that’s what happened here. If there was a policy that explained what to do we might not be here,” he said.
Matt Fuller, the town’s attorney, argued that the town’s policy or lack of policy was irrelevant in regards to whether Pratt disobeyed orders.
The town, however, has since developed a formal policy that all wood cut on the sides of road will be left there.

 

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