Once again Angela Cywinski, the paid assessor in Aquinnah, finds herself in the middle of town hall drama. This time it involves a forensic audit of her office computer, and her being escorted out of the building for working overtime.
“I’m speechless,” Ms. Cywinski told The Times, noting that she’s retained legal counsel because of what she considers ongoing harassment. “I’ve seen my rights as an employee totally thrown out the window,” she said.
On Tuesday, Sept. 12, just after 5 pm, Ms. Cywinski said she was on a phone call with a taxpayer when newly hired town administrator Jeffrey Madison told her she had to leave. Selectmen have imposed a strict closing time after the town hall was allegedly broken into by Ms. Cywinski on a Saturday in August; she said she was attempting to reset the router for the town’s Internet service.
On Tuesday, Ms. Cywinski said she told Mr. Madison she would leave after she finished the phone call. Instead, Mr. Madison called police.
Aquinnah Police Chief Rhandi Belain said Officer David Murphy responded and told Ms. Cywinski she would have to leave. “She complied for the most part,” Chief Belain said.
Ms. Cywinski said she was just trying to do her job. “I’m trying to give taxpayers the best service for their tax dollars,” she said. “Incidents like this handicap me from doing my job.”
Jim Newman, chairman of the board of selectmen, said the closing time was set by the board. “We thought it should be closed and not used except for a meeting,” he said.
Mr. Madison wrote to Ms. Cywinski and selectmen about the incident. “This evening at 5 pm I asked Angela to leave the building in compliance with the selectmen’s order to close the town hall. She refused, saying that she was speaking with a taxpayer and that took precidence (sic),” Mr. Madison wrote. “I called the Aquinnah Police, who gave her time to take care of her personal business and then told her she needed to vacate the building. This resulted in my having to spend an additional half-hour of time in the selectmen’s office solely to deal with Angela’s uncooperative behavior.”
This is latest in an ongoing string of disputes between Ms. Cywinski, the board of assessors, and the board of selectmen that date back to 2015, when Ms. Cywinski pointed out that the town overspent its budget. It’s a complicated history that includes disputes over how she does her job, and involves former town administrator Adam Wilson running for and winning a seat on the board of assessors.
“I feel like I’m being targeted,” Ms. Cywinski told The Times.
According to an email written by Mr. Madison on Sept. 7, the assessors’ department computer underwent a forensic audit. No reason was given in the email, though the email also raises questions about the board of assessors’ authorizing an “independent server” for that department at a cost of $140 per month. According to the email, Comcast agreed to increase the bandwidth on the existing service for about $35 per month. “In the interest of fiscal responsibility, you are requested to cancel any order with Comcast for additional service pending further notice,” Mr. Madison wrote.
Ms. Cywinski said she was returning from Northboro, where she was entering data for the revaluation of property taxes, when she got the call about Mr. Madison’s email.
Mr. Madison did not return a call to his office or an email Friday.
Jim Newman, chairman of the board of selectmen, said the audit was ordered by his board. “The computer is owned by the town of Aquinnah, as is the office,” Mr. Newman said. “We don’t need permission to go into our own computers.”
He declined to comment further on the computer audit, except to say that it was done after checking with the town’s attorney.
Ms. Cywinski said the audit of her computer, which includes data for the town’s property tax revaluation, is highly irregular without a search warrant. “I’ve since rebooted, and some of it’s not there,” she said of the data. The result is that certification of the town’s tax rate could be delayed, forcing the town to borrow money, she said.
Ms. Cywinski said she’s alerted the state Department of Revenue of the town’s actions.
A spokesman for that agency said it’s a local matter and the Department of Revenue would have no comment.
At this week’s selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, the longstanding tension between the board of selectmen and the assessor’s board spilled out in a protracted exchange between assessor chairman Elise LeBovit and Mr. Newman. With assessors’ board member Elaine Vanderhoop absent because she had resigned and Adam Wilson opting for silence, Ms. LeBovit was the focus of Mr. Newman’s complaints about the board’s behavioral history. Ms. LeBovit later told The Times that Ms. Vanderhoop, who was appointed to the board on May 30, had tendered her resignation to the town clerk.
Mr. Newman reiterated his displeasure with a demeaning blog that had circulated during a recent town election cycle; he reprimanded the assessors for committing to telecommunication services that the selectmen had forbade them from acquiring, he admonished them for door-knocking on Sundays to assess property; and expressed disgust over the board’s insensitivity to Wampanoag children in the town’s annual report where assessors reported reimbursement to the town from the federal government is lacking.
At one point during the meeting, selectman Juli Vanderhoop grew so visibly incensed, she shoved Mr. Newman’s shoulder while staring at Ms. LeBovit.
“First of all, when bounds have been crossed, you don’t keep crossing them,” selectman Vanderhoop said. “You’re just pushing us and pushing us, and it’s hard to work together if we cannot communicate.”
Ms. LeBovit repeatedly expressed her displeasure with the tone the selectmen take with the assessors’ board. She also told Mr. Newman that she believed the selectmen illegally accessed the assessors’ laptop, and may have compromised restricted data. Without naming names, Mr. Newman countered that somebody may have recently illegally accessed town personnel files.
The two boards tabled their discussion, and the Aquinnah selectmen went on to discuss other business.
Reporter Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report.