Friday, June 18, 1999
Private post-mortem dissects Town Meeting financial fiasco
Members of the board of selectmen and finance committee met behind closed doors on June 1 to analyze what caused the confusing and unsettling presentation of the town's finances at this spring's Annual Town Meeting. Although selectmen had spoken about an open discussion of what went wrong and had originally scheduled the FinCom to be on the agenda for the June 8 selectmen's meeting, apparently, the boards reconsidered and opted to hold the pow-wow in private.
Moreover, the private gathering, which made recommendations for improving the process in the future, was the only joint meeting the two boards intend on this topic. In a memorandum summarizing the June 1 meeting, town administrator David DeManche stated, "Please note that the finance committee does not want to meet again to discuss these issues."
Open meeting issues
The June 1 meeting was not required to be posted as a public meeting even though it was attended by two of the five selectmen (John Ballantine and Doug Stevenson), three of the seven finance committee members (Charles Parker, Tony Allison and Simon Platt), DeManche and town accountant Sarah Andreassen. By law, a meeting must be posted and open to the public if a quorum of a town board meets to discuss town business. In this case, one more selectman or one more FinCom member would have required an open hearing.
When asked at their June 8 meeting whether the selectmen thought it was important to hold this meeting in private, Stevenson replied that there was a sense of not wanting to "air dirty laundry" and of wanting to "put our problems behind us." Although Ballantine did not attend that selectmen's meeting, he explained in a later interview that certain FinCom members did not feel that a public forum would be constructive to discuss the potentially embarrassing and to some extent personal problems encountered in preparing for Town Meeting. A private meeting would allow people to speak more frankly and offer "an opportunity to vent," said Ballantine.
Process issues aside, the meeting appears to have been productive; officials discussed communication problems, the observance of critical timelines, the role of town counsel, the availability and timeliness of financial information and "version control" (everyone working from the same spreadsheet). In a memorandum summarizing the meeting, DeManche reported that the group made the following recommendations:
· The establishment of a fiscal calendar with tasks and responsibilities outlined. The town administrator will create the calendar subject to review and approval by the board of selectmen and the finance committee.
· The creation of a financial team which will meet on a regular basis to discuss financial issues relative to the town and the budget. This team will be comprised of the town administrator, accountant, assessor, treasurer and members of the board of selectmen and finance committee.
· Utilization of the town administrator as a central point of contact by the FinCom and board of selectmen for review and amendment of the worksheets.
· Coordination of the flow of information by the town administrator to ensure the timely completion of the town audit, certification of free cash and creation of the guideline/worksheets. Selectmen pointed to the audit of the town's finances for the fiscal year ended June 30, 1998 as an example of timeliness problemswhich was just received and approved at the June 8 meeting.
Notably absent from the recommendations was the suggestion of hiring a town financial director. Selectman Michael Fitzgerald commented that, while as a practical matter the town could not hire a financial director this year because there is no money in the budget, now is the time to begin planning to add the position. "If we don't head in that direction we're further sticking our head in the sand," said Fitzgerald. Selectman Vivian Chaput also saw the need for a financial coordinator. Noting that the FinCom and selectmen are supposed to serve advisory and executive functions, Chaput said, "We end up being number crunchers and that is not an effective way to operate."
Stevenson concluded that whether and how the town hires a financial director warrants significant discussion. It might make sense to combine this position with the school business administrator, for example, suggested Stevenson. Fitzgerald also suggested that the town look at alternatives to a full-time director, possibly sharing the position with another town. Stevenson reported that town treasurer Nancy Koerner and tax collector William Koerner both support the hiring of a financial director. In a separate interview, Ballantine noted, however, that if the recommendation for a financial team is put in place, there will be less need for a financial director because "things will be less likely to fall through the cracks."
Back to process
The selectmen generally supported the recommendations outlined by DeManche but were reluctant to vote to approve them because of potential problems with the open meeting law. The recommendation to create a financial team which will meet on a regular basis caused particular concern. As Fitzgerald said, "We're treading a fine line with the open meeting law," if the selectmen rubber-stamped the formation of a committee discussed at a closed session.
Selectmen concluded that the financial team recommended by the June 1 group would serve an administrative function and operate more as a working group meeting of department heads rather than a new town committee. Regardless of how the new financial team is viewed, Ballantine stated that all of this group's meetings will be open.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito