Oak Bluffs counsel questioned on employee contracts
The Oak Bluffs selectmen took nearly an hour at the beginning of their meeting on Tuesday to discuss with town counsel Ron Rappaport the advice contained in a letter he and town labor counsel Michael Gilman wrote concerning various personal service contracts negotiated with town employees.
At the end of last month the two attorneys advised that the town did not have the authority to enter into a handful of these contracts.
Town administrator Michael Dutton said he asked Mr. Rappaport to attend the meeting to answer any questions the selectman had about the letter. Tuesday was the first time the board has met since publication of the letter.
Speaking to a packed audience in the library meeting room, Mr. Rappaport restated the conclusions set out in his letter, including his opinion that five of the 15 contracts reviewed were "unauthorized" and that town health insurance contributions, larger in these contracts than in labor agreements with other town workers, must be made the same for all town employees. Then, Mr. Rappaport explained the language he used in his letter. He said the terms used - specifically the term "unauthorized" - were carefully chosen to accurately portray the situation.
"There is a difference between unauthorized and illegal," Mr. Rappaport said. "Illegal means something criminal took place, and we're not suggesting that." He continued: "The term illegal is sort of a charged term because it implies something criminal."
Mr. Rappaport appeared to be referring to a March 2 Vineyard Gazette headline, "Oak Bluffs Contracts, Bonuses Illegal, Two Town Attorney's Declare in Letter." The term illegal does not appear at all in the 11-page letter.
The Gazette article was the first time many Oak Bluffs residents, and even some of town employees holding the contracts in question, learned of the lawyers' letter, selectman Greg Coogan said on Tuesday. Mr. Coogan, acting as chairman of the board in place of chairman Duncan Ross, who is away, said it was important for Mr. Rappaport to explain the letter and what it means for the town.
"I had two questions. One, was anything illegal done? You said no, and that feels better to me," Mr. Coogan said.
In response to inquiries from selectmen, Mr. Rappaport said the town should not try to recoup any of the money paid to employees as bonuses or health insurance contributions, under the terms of the unauthorized contracts. He said it is not the fault of the employees and should not be their responsibility to pay that money back.
When selectmen finished asking questions and the floor was opened up to the audience, a trio of well-known critics of the selectmen offered impassioned comments. Linda Marinelli, Gerry DeBettencourt, and Ann Margetson each expressed dismay at how the town managed to get itself into such a predicament.
Mrs. Marinelli, a former selectman, spoke with zeal about the plight of the Oak Bluffs taxpayers and was moved to tears at the height of her speech.
"I'm confused and I'm upset," she said. "How do we deal with the taxpayers who foot the bill? If we don't have the law to back us up, what the hell good is it?"
Mrs. Margetson said the situation was not as complicated as people were making it out to be, and Mrs. DeBettencourt compared the various contracts and bonuses to robbing a bank.
Once Mr. Rappaport responded to all the questions and left, so did many of the audience members. With only a few townspeople remaining, the selectmen pressed on, tackling a variety of agenda items, including approving a license for a new clothing store on Circuit Avenue, and listening to a status report from Martha's Vineyard Commission director Mark London on the Island Plan.
Toward the end of the meeting, the selectmen discussed the impacts of the state Department of Education's (DOE) mandated statutory ("aggregate wealth") formula for allocating Martha's Vineyard Regional High School district costs. Under the new formula and according to current numbers, Oak Bluffs would have a decreased assessment of $413,537 for the upcoming fiscal year. Tisbury's assessment would increase by $220,768.
The existing regional formula for funding the high school is based on a per-pupil census, while the state's statutory formula takes into account a town's wealth based on its total equalized property valuation and personal income.
Last week, in a 7-2 vote, the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School District (MVRHSD) school committee voted to certify the towns' assessment portion of FY08 budget, using the existing regional agreement rather than the state's new formula. Committee members Priscilla Silvia and Judi O'Donoghue, both of Oak Bluffs, were the two no votes.
Judging by comments made Tuesday, town residents and officials are not in agreement. Selectman Ron DiOrio said the town deserves the decreased assessment, since Oak Bluffs hosts the high school on tax-free land. Similarly, selectman Kerry Scott said the town needs to look out for itself and let the other Island towns, particularly Tisbury, handle their own problems.
School committee member David Morris said Ms. Scott's attitude is dangerous, and could pollute the working relationships of the six Island towns in the future. Mr. Coogan, a teacher at the Tisbury School, said due to his employment with the neighboring town, he would reserve comment on the issue.
Under DOE regulations adopted in January, regional school committees decide which formula to present to voters. The state's statutory assessment method requires approval by two-thirds of the towns. To use the existing regional agreement requires the unanimous approval of all six towns. The statutory formula applies only to the "foundation" or required portion of the school budget. The high school spends far more than the minimum, and the expenses beyond the minimum are apportioned according to the regional agreement.