The Oak Bluffs select board called a special meeting for Tuesday, and included on the agenda was an executive session “to discuss the reputation, character, physical condition, or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member, or individual.”
The Times confirmed that the closed-door meeting was scheduled to call a member or members of the town’s elected finance committee before the board. After The Times started asking questions, the executive session was abruptly canceled.
The finance committee questioned during their May 19 meeting the legality of town administrator Deborah Potter also serving as the town accountant. She was hired nearly a year ago with the understanding that she would serve as town accountant until a replacement was hired. During that May 19 meeting, chair Sherry Countryman acknowledged she first called the attorney general’s office, and then reached out to town counsel Michael Goldsmith to question the legality of Potter’s roles.
Reached by phone Friday, Countryman declined to comment, citing the executive session.
The select board’s special meeting comes on the heels of the select board appointing Carrie Blair as acting town accountant on Tuesday, May 24.
Asked what jurisdiction the select board has over another elected committee, select board chair Ryan Ruley declined to comment, saying he can’t discuss an executive session.
The Open Meeting Law requires that if a quorum of another board is present, that the meeting be posted by that board as well.
Later, select board member Brian Packish told The Times the select board can call the finance committee members to the executive session because they are considered municipal employees.
At the May 24 meeting, Packish suggested the executive session. “I’m deeply disappointed to hear about what occurred at our FinCom meeting the other night. I’m looking forward to seeing the tape. I think the town administrator should distribute that tape to all board members,” he said. “I believe, the way it’s been explained to me, is that there are insinuations and allegations made against this board and its members. There was discussion with personnel and rights violated. And I take extreme issue with this. And if that is the case, then I recommend that this board holds an executive session, and holds anyone accountable that has participated in anything like that. Our employees are too important to us, we need to define the roles and responsibilities of our elected officials, because the constant, systematic undermining of their work and abuse of them as professionals cannot be tolerated in today’s climate, or in any climate, and quite frankly, it infuriates me to even have to talk about it. But I imagine more will be revealed as we navigate the situations that have risen up in that meeting.”
Video of the finance committee meeting is posted on the town’s website. During it, Countryman explains how her interaction with Goldsmith came about, and the “brouhaha” it created among select board members and Potter. She acknowledged that she now knows any request to talk to the town’s attorney must be approved by the select board, but wondered why Goldsmith had not told her that when she reached out.
Packish said the select board can’t allow another board to talk about personnel in the way the finance committee did during its May 19 meeting, but it’s unclear exactly what triggered his reaction.
Much of the discussion among finance committee members centered around whether Potter’s dual role had ever been defined, and the state statute that forbids employees from holding two positions.
According to the state Ethics Commission website, an employee can’t hold two paid positions. However, if one of the positions is unpaid, that is allowed.
Potter was only being paid as town administrator. She said during the Tuesday, May 24, select board meeting she was serving as town accountant while Blair was being trained, but was not being paid.
“Contrary to some comments and assertions that were made at the FinCom meeting on May 19, this appointment has been a long-planned part of an ongoing succession plan. The mentoring and support of Ms. Blair was discussed at my interview for town administrator in June 2021. It is part of my approved and legally vetted contract, which it specifically notes that the job descriptions and duties of town administrator, by agreement, have been modified such that until the time that the select board is satisfied that our current assistant town accountant is qualified to perform the duties of town accountant, that I would be providing the training and supervision to Ms. Blair,” Potter said. “As a service to the town, without any additional compensation — yes, that means I’m doing two full-time jobs at one salary. The transition of Ms. Blair to acting town accountant was discussed in a [briefing] to the personnel board for their August 2021 meeting to discuss how the fiscal year 2023 operations would look like as far as their personnel staffing. It was also discussed as part of the budget for fiscal year 23 by both the select board and the FinCom, when noting the change in the salary line item for the assistant town accountant. It was also reiterated during Ms. Blair’s very positive annual performance review that occurred in April and May of this current year.”
Without explanation, the executive session has since been removed from Tuesday’s agenda. That same agenda, however, includes finalist interviews for local inspector and principal assessor without naming them. Under the state’s Open Meeting Law, the names of the finalists should be included on the agenda.