Time to mend fences

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Oak Buffs town administrator Deborah Potter appears to have overreacted to questions raised by the town’s finance committee about her dual role as town administrator and town accountant during her first year as town administrator.

All of this goes back to a May 19 meeting of the finance committee, where chair Sherry Countryman relayed to the rest of the committee her interactions with the town’s attorney about Potter’s dual role.

At a meeting of the select board on May 24, select board member Brian Packish, without having been present or having seen a videotape of the finance committee meeting, was urging his fellow board members to hold an executive session to discuss it. A special meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, May 31, with an item on the select board’s agenda “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.” 

We started asking questions, and found out this executive session was about a member or members of the finance committee. During the process of The Times’ asking about the appropriateness of an elected board (the select board) calling in members of another elected board (finance committee members), the executive session was mysteriously dropped from the agenda.

Still, Packish insisted in a conversation with The Times that the select board would have been within its authority to call that executive session. He implored us to watch the videotape of the May 19 meeting to see for ourselves.

We did watch a recording of that meeting, and we found it underwhelming. We wondered why the board and Potter got so worked up about it. With apologies to William Shakespeare: We thinks she doth protest too much.

A duly elected finance committee is a check on the select board in our system of checks and balances. It is the finance committee’s absolute role and responsibility to raise questions. In this case, they were discussing the appropriateness of Potter’s dual role.

Did they have things wrong? Yes. Did we need this mountain to be created out of a molehill? No.

As Potter explained, there was no violation of law for her to hold the two positions, because she was only being paid as the town administrator. She was providing a service to the town by filling both roles and taking on responsibilities for two departments, even as she learned her new role as town administrator. She did the two jobs until Carrie Blair was trained and able to take over as acting town accountant.

It all feels like there’s more going on here than meets the eye. We certainly didn’t see anything during that May 19 meeting that meets the definition of impugning one’s reputation, as Potter suggested. Potter filed an official complaint, and claimed the finance committee “not only impugned my integrity, my character, my reputation, but it impugned yours.”

Before walking out of last week’s meeting, Countryman referred to Potter’s reaction as “bewildering.”

We have to agree. 

Being a town administrator calls for having a thick skin and being able to navigate in some turbulent waters. She’ll be called on to make tough decisions and to be able to back them up.

We have nothing but best wishes for Potter as she continues on in her career, and have heard positive feedback about her leadership, but we hope she uses this experience to find a way to answer questions raised by another town board in a direct and matter-of-fact way rather than taking it personally.

And the select board should, in fact, apologize to the two finance committee members it called before them. In the future, the select board should leave the responsibility to hold those elected committee members accountable to the only people who fill that role — the voters of Oak Buffs.

The remarkable thing is at the same meeting where the Oak Bluffs select board was defending its reputation and the reputation of its town administrator, it did more damage to those reputations by what wasn’t on the agenda. The decision to ignore a request by the NAACP to fly the Juneteenth flag is a stain on the board.

Having just correctly agreed to fly the Progress Pride flag and then to not even be willing to hear a request to fly the Juneteenth flag was a disgraceful decision that left bad feelings among members of the NAACP, as well as the business community.

The select board and Potter have no one to blame for tarnishing their reputations but themselves in this instance. And they have a lot of work to do to mend fences in the community.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Amen to Sherry Countryman! It’s ok to question! That’s their “volunteer” job!! Her expertise as a lawyer is a big help to our town! So many are just into it for personal gain!!!

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