The Oak Bluffs select board heard a formal complaint from an employee against two finance committee members at the end of their meeting Tuesday night. The heated exchange followed recent disagreements between town administrator Deborah Potter — the complainant — and the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee, in which the latter questioned the ethics of Potter holding two positions at Town Hall.
The showdown had initially been scheduled for an executive session, but that was abruptly canceled after The Times raised questions about whether an elected board could call another elected board into a disciplinary hearing.
What select board chair Ryan Ruley asserted “is not a trial [or] a back-and-forth situation” that would involve any “cross-examination” quickly turned hostile.
“It is with great regret that I even have to file this,” said Potter of the complaint.
Potter said comments made at the May 19 finance committee meeting “not only impugned my integrity, my character, my reputation,” she said, turning to the select board, “but it impugned yours.”
Potter emphasized that the law referenced by finance committee chair Sherry Countryman states that the town accountant cannot hold an additional position “involving the receipt or disbursement of money,” and hence is not applicable. Potter said the only restriction to her dual role is that she would be ineligible to hold an elected position, and asserted that in her two roles with the town, there were “no activities that involve the receipt and disbursement of money.”
Potter said after “five minutes worth of research,” she found 36 other towns in Massachusetts “where the town accountant has an additional responsibility and job role.”
Potter referred to comments by finance committee member Richard Weiss that the dual role is unethical, specifically — according to Potter — the insinuation that the board is trying to “fix the problem” by appointing Carrie Blair to acting accountant.
“That’s an insinuation that we did something illegal, and we’re trying to cover it up,” said Potter. “This is specific, intentional, and deliberate.”
Potter said the situation sets a bad precedent. “At this point, if this is how boards are going to address a situation that they have an issue with, where is it going to stop?” she said. “It sets a bad tone,” she continued. “This is the kind of stuff that creates a toxic [environment].”
Potter said Blair’s new role has been affected by the comments, adding that she’s been accused of being part of a “cover-up.”
The board deferred to town counsel Jack Collins, who acknowledged that there is a question “whenever an employee holds two positions,” but subsequently asserted that Potter’s dual role is legal and ethical.
Ruley reaffirmed that the succession plan for Blair had been run through and approved by town counsel. “I want to make it clear to the public,” he said. “This board, along with Deb Potter, did everything we were supposed to do. At no time did anything sneakily happen, or did we undermine anything or try to hide anything.”
Weiss suggested that the “optics” and “timing” of Blair’s appointment require questioning if it is a “coincidence.”
Potter said she “level-fund[ed]” her salary of $150,000 for three years “for the convenience of the town,” in order to “establish the permanent town administrator position.”
Countryman responded to Potter’s complaint, calling it “bewildering reaction” to “a simple question about a Massachusetts statute defining the permissible positions a town accountant can have … It should have had a simple answer,” she said.
“Even now, I’m not sure we have a definitive answer,” Countryman said. “The question was never directed at Ms. Potter personally.” Referring to the video of the May 19 finance committee meeting, Countryman said, “It was the role I was looking into, and not the person.”
“Because I asked the question, I have been accused of abusing employees, undermining their work, holding myself out as a lawyer, advising the FinCom, not following rules, violating the town bylaws, and so forth,” said Countryman.
“Yeah, the FinCom asked questions,” Countryman said; “it’s our job.”
Countryman requested that she, Weiss, and the finance committee receive an apology from the select board and Potter. To which select board member Jason Balboni responded, “To turn around and demand an apology from this board — that’s disgusting.”
Countryman said she was hoping to maintain a healthy working relationship with Potter and the select board, but later stated before abruptly walking out of the meeting that she would be questioning whether to even be involved with the town — “If that’s the way you’re going to treat people who ask a question.”
The discussion eventually simmered as Ruley suggested moving toward a healthier collaboration involving more transparency between the two groups — after giving some time to “get the steam off.” Additionally, the select board agreed to consider a more stringent commitment to attending government ethics courses.