Oak Bluffs wastewater commissioners backtrack on Alosso job

Wastewater manager Joe Alosso attended the meeting of the wastewater commissioners on Tuesday. Lisa Merritt, office administrator, is in the background. — Photo by Steve Myrick

A divided Oak Bluffs wastewater commission carefully backtracked on Tuesday from their vote last week that eliminated wastewater plant manager Joe Alosso’s job, then began a fresh round of sharp, disagreeable exchanges.

The meeting began with a series of carefully choreographed votes, directed by Jack Collins, the town’s labor counsel, who dictated the wording of the motions.

First, commission chairman Hans Von Steiger, commission member Gail Barmakian, who is also a selectman and lawyer, and commission member Bob Iadicicco voted 3-0 to reconsider their January 26 vote to eliminate the plant manager position.

Next, the commissioners voted 3-0 to rescind that vote.

The commissioners then voted 2-1 to recommend to selectmen that they eliminate the position of plant manager to save money for the financially beset town department.

As they did last week, Mr. Von Steiger and Ms. Barmakian voted in favor, and Mr. Iadicicco voted against. This division once again spawned sharp accusations.

“If the board sees fit to reduce the personnel in the plant, that’s one issue, but eliminating the position of the manager is unconscionable,” Mr. Iadiccico said. “We have never contemplated reducing personnel. It came up last meeting as a bolt out of the blue, only after some backroom consultations out in the hallway.” Mr. Iadiccico referred to a conversation Mr. Von Steiger and Ms. Barmakian had in the hallway prior to the January 26 meeting.

Mr. Von Steiger took offense. “You’re making an accusation that’s completely untrue,” he said. Later he clarified the discussion.

“For your edification,” Mr. Von Steiger said, “we were discussing the town abatement request at that time.”

“What you talked about in the hallway, was that on the agenda?” Mr. Alosso asked.

“Yes,” said Mr. Von Steiger

“That,” said Mr. Alosso, “just so you know, is a violation of the open meeting law, discussion among two members about an item that’s on the agenda prior to coming in. Just so you know.”

Selectman Mike Santoro, acting town administrator Bob Whritenour, and town counsel Ron Rappaport also attended the meeting.

It was a busy afternoon for Mr. Rappaport. Only hours earlier, he and Mr. Collins attended a meeting of Edgartown officials that ended with an agreement under which Mr. Alosso will resign as manager of that town’s wastewater plant, a job he held together with the same post in Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Santoro asked a series of pointed questions, beginning by asking the commissioners to name the specific amount of money they needed to cut from their budget.

Ms. Barmakian said there was no specific figure. “We’ve operated at a deficit for the last two years,” she said. “We were strongly advised we had to make drastic cuts, as well as take money from our retained earnings account.”We depend on our retained earnings to cover any operating deficit. Those funds have been depleted. There’s not a specific number, other than we’re running very close. If we incur another deficit next year, we’re in serious trouble.”

Mr. Santoro also asked questions about a large amount of unpaid wastewater bills.

Mr. Von Steiger said outstanding bills for the year 2012 totalled $285,263, which represents 38.1 percent of the department’s $747,571 budget.

“It sounds like it’s not fair to people who pay on time, yet other people continue to do business,” Mr. Santoro said. “It’s affecting the financial crisis of the commission.

Three times, as the discussion ranged from the reason for the deficit, policy for collection of unpaid bills, and possible expansion of the sewer system, Ms. Barmakian objected on the grounds that the item was not on the posted agenda.

Speaking directly to Mr. Iadicicco, she said, “Sombody’s been very specific and picky about agenda items not being covered. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Later, as Mr. Alosso outlined some routine business for the board’s attention, Ms. Barmakian tried to cut off the discussion.

“All due respect Joe, you’re not on the agenda, for the manager’s update,” Ms. Barmakian said.

“I’m just telling you,” Mr. Alosso said. “There are things that you need to do that you overlooked for this meeting.”

Muddy waters

The 2-1 vote on January 26 occurred with no prior notice or discussion that might have signaled that the wastewater commission intended to consider eliminating the job Mr. Alosso holds.

The commission agreed to eliminate the position effective February 29 and then to operate the facility with three licensed operators who are currently employed at the plant.

In its aftermath, Kathy Burton, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, and Mr. Whritenour said the wastewater commission acted without proper authority.

Mr. Alosso, Oak Bluffs wastewater manager for the past 11 years, said he was taken completely by surprise, and he questioned the legality of the process.

The vote was not on the January 26 agenda. The item that began the discussion that led to the vote was described as “policy/budget analysis.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s guide to the open meeting law, posted meeting agendas must give clear notice of the topics to be discussed.

This week the town’s lawyer and labor counsel advised town officials that under the state laws adopted by the town, selectmen are the appointing authority for Mr. Alosso and the other wastewater department employees.

Ms. Burton said last week that the wastewater commission can only make recomendations on personnel.

“My expectation would be if the wastewater commission would like to eliminate that employee’s position, I would expect they present a thorough and well thought out plan to selectmen,” she told The Times last week.

Prior to the January 26 meeting, no member of the five-member board of selectmen, the finance and advisory committee, the personnel committee, or the wastewater department staff knew that the wastewater commissioners were contemplating the elimination of the position of plant manager or that it would be discussed at the January 26 wastewater commission meeting.

Ms. Barmakian and Mr. Von Steiger did not consult with town counsel Ron Rappaport or with the town’s outside labor attorney, Mr. Collins.

Mr. Alosso receives a salary of $68,058.

The Oak Bluffs wastewater operation is an enterprise account with an elected board of three commissioners who oversee a budget entirely separate from the town’s operating budget. The town is responsible for collecting wastewater payment fees, which are usually billed, along with tax bills. Collections are strictly regulated by state law, and town officials do not have the authority to shut off wastewater service if a customer does not pay its bills.