Oak Bluffs selectmen lay off Roger Wey

Selectmen cited long standing internal conflicts, financial irregularities for the council on aging director’s dismissal.

Oak Bluffs selectmen listened to a report from chairman of the personnel board Gretchen Coleman-Thomas. From left to right: Walter Vail, Kathleen Burton, Chairman Gregory Coogan, Michael Santoro and Gail Barmakian. — Photo by Michael Cummo

After four and a half months of wrangling and two investigations of department accounting procedures, Oak Bluffs selectmen Tuesday voted 4 to 1 to lay off embattled Council on Aging (COA) director Roger Wey and reorganize the department.

First hired in December 2004, Mr. Wey, who has been on paid administrative leave since February 11, will end his tenure on June 30.

“We have been at a stalemate for a while,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said. “There’s been no progress between attorneys. I asked Bob  [town administrator Robert Whritenour] to look into the COA and the [COA] in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven and make a recommendation. We have to resolve the situation.”

Mr. Whritenour provided selectmen with a six-page report in which he said, “In examining the current status it rapidly become clear that the existing leadership and structure at the Council on Aging is not capable of making significant improvement in the culture that has developed over time.”

Mr. Whritenour said a “significant reorganization” is required. Union opposition is expected.

Shirley Fauteux, agent for the Oak Bluffs board of health and shop steward for the local council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) said in a phone call with the Times that Mr. Whritenour’s actions were a clear case of “union busting,” noting that in his memo he states the COA director, which is a union position, should be replaced with “non-union, salaried, management positions.”

“The union will actively defend that as a union position,” Ms. Fauteux said.

Numerous violations

The selectmen voted to place Mr. Wey on paid leave on February 11 after town accountant Arthur Gallagher reported irregularities in COA finances, in particular with the Quilt Fund.

Per the strong advice of town labor counsel John “Jack” Collins, selectmen first asked police and later forensic accountant John Sullivan of the firm Melanson, Heath & Company of Andover to investigate COA finances.

In a six-page memo dated May 5, Mr. Collins wrote that Mr. Sullivan’s report “confirms the suspicions the Town Accountant had concerning possible inappropriate handling and reporting of funds,” and concludes that “numerous laws appear to have been violated, that even the most basic accounting and reporting was lacking, that the Director used his position to direct or divert monies to private entities, that he directed at least one other COA employee to participate in these activities on town times, that town resources were used to support non-municipal agencies or groups, that public bidding laws were not followed, that even the most rudimentary not-for-profit filing and reporting laws were ignored and that funds belonging to the Town were diverted and expended at the direction of the COA Director in violation of applicable Massachusetts General Laws.”

Change needed

Mr. Whritenour’s six-page report, which was prepared in conjunction with the personnel board and sent to the selectmen on June 19, cited long-standing and at times rancorous internal conflict and lack of focus on COA services as the main reasons to lay off Mr. Wey. The report made only cursory mention of COA finances.

“For many years there have existed issues of concern with the management of Oak Bluffs’ program of senior services that have proven very difficult for the Town to overcome,” Mr. Whritenour wrote, citing a series of grievances between Mr. Wey and assistant director Rose Cogliano which required a series of hearings before the board of selectman starting in 2006.

“In 2009 problems erupted again, with charges that the seniors were being turned into “camps,” the Directors camp and the Assistant Director’s camp,” he wrote.

Paraphrasing from his report as he addressed the standing room only crowd Tuesday, Mr. Whritenour said in 2012 conflicts erupted again “even stronger than the past” which required a professional mediator to address issues of bullying. “That was met with resistance and with more grievances. Then 2013 we face town accountant complaints that funds from public sources were funneled through private accounts. Those issues are still outstanding,” he said.

Recommended revamp

Mr. Whritenour recommended a sweeping reorganization of the COA to remedy the long-standing divisiveness, and to improve the services to the community, “The council on aging itself needs to be structured in a way that it has more of a governing role over its services,” Mr. Whritenour said. “If we’re going to refocus, we have to look at new organization.”

Mr. Whritenour recommended giving more power to the board of directors, eliminating the director and assistant director position and replacing them with a COA administrator, a program administrator to operate the day to day business of the department, and an outreach coordinator. “We’ll be able to refocus the department on services, and away from control and power struggles,” he said.

Mr. Whritenour said he hoped to create a more collaborative approach at the COA, citing the library as an example where a strong board creates policies and the employees carry them out.

Mr. Whritenour was sharply critical about the COA outreach, saying the program that serves the largest senior population on the Island reaches about eight people, as compared to the 60 to 70 people that the Edgartown outreach program serves. “It’s not reaching the numbers we’d like to reach. In comparison to other communities it is miniscule,” he said.

Town labor counsel John (Jack) M. Collins advised that it would likely take three to four months to restructure the organization. He recommended that Mr. Whritenour and the COA board oversee the transition.

Selectman Gail Barmakian, the lone dissenting vote with “a very strong nay,” questioned if the COA reorganization required a town meeting vote. Her question went unanswered. She raised numerous questions over the course of the discussion, several times eliciting applause from the vocal contingent supporting Mr. Wey.

“I think we need to be really cautious and look into this more before we give the power to the board in this letter,” she said.

Selectman Kathy Burton, who said she’s been getting complaints about the COA from constituents for years, endorsed Mr. Whritenour’s reorganization plan. “I feel it’s best for the town and for the seniors here to move on. I think these are excellent suggestions,” she said.

Selectman Walter Vail also strongly supported the action. “It makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “It gives us opportunity to think about this for a while. We have to try something new.”

“We proposed the exact same thing in 2010,” personnel board chairman Gretchen Coleman-Thomas said. “The members today and in 2010 wholeheartedly support this.”

Ms. Coleman-Thomas said increased outreach to the community and active polling of the senior population were essential to improving the COA and defining its mission.

Mr. Coogan wrapped up the lengthy discussion, declining public comment. “This could have gone on a long time,” he said. “We’ve all had time to think about it. I could hear from 20 people on one side and 20 from another. I’ve heard from the COA board and from personnel board and I think it’s time for the board itself to move on this.”

Mr. Vail quickly made the motion to adapt Mr. Whritenour’s strategy and Ms. Burton seconded it. Mr. Coogan concluded the discussion despite continued procedural questions raised by Ms. Barmakian. “The motion is to lay off the COA director as of June 30 and let board continue to look at organization of the council on aging so we can resolve that by the fall. That’s as far as we’re going to go,” he said.

Future strategies

In a phone call with The Times on Wednesday morning, Mr. Wey said he was weighing his options with his attorney, Paul Merry. “We have to gather all the information and then we’ll have a strategy,” he said. “We had an investigation and an audit and nothing in either one that found anything that was really wrong. How much have they spent on all this nonsense? The legal fees, the accountant, the police investigation — if all this money went to fuel assistance there’d be a lot of happy people. The big losers are going to be the seniors, being underserved during the busiest time of year.”

In a phone call with the Times on Wednesday morning, Mr. Whritenour said he felt confident that the COA would function well over the summer. “Since February 2014 Rose [Cogliano] has been serving in an acting capacity and Susan [[Von Steiger] has increased her outreach role,” he said. “Things are going quite smoothly. The center is performing very well, we haven’t skipped a beat.”

Mr. Whritenour said that over the summer he, along with the COA board, will refine job descriptions, develop organizational goals, and conduct a professional recruitment process.

Correction:An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that selectmen voted to fire Mr. Wey. Selectmen voted to lay Mr. Wey off and reorganize the COA.