Southbridge officials want clarity from Town Council
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
SOUTHBRIDGE — A contentious two-and-a-half-hour meeting this week featured finger-pointing, three town councilors leaving part way through discussions, and department heads unsure what fund-transfer procedures to follow going forward.
The Town Council’s Department of Public Works subcommittee meeting Tuesday night was highlighted by the third of seven agenda items: “Discuss a recent forklift purchase and sources of funding.”
Councilors said the item was placed on the agenda at the request of Town Council Chairwoman Denise Clemence. While subcommittee chairman Marc DiPietro placed the discussion on his agenda, he suggested on Tuesday that it should have gone to the General Government subcommittee as a discussion pertaining to the town charter. “I didn’t want to go here,” Mr. DiPietro said. “I didn’t think this was the proper forum for it.”
The crux of the discussion centered around a Sept. 29, 2017, purchase of a $27,500 forklift, which was paid for with an even split of the bill between the DPW’s general equipment and machinery fund, and the equipment capital funds of the town’s sewer and water departments. DPW Director Heather Blakeley said while the forklift is housed at the DPW barn on Guelphwood Road, it is used by other town departments. Some councilors have bristled at the purchase as they argue Town Manager Ron San Angelo failed to bring the item forward for a vote to appropriate funds, pointing to several passages in the town charter as evidence alleging he acted inappropriately. Mr. San Angelo and several department heads countered that the critics have a different interpretation of the charter from those of previous Town Councils and town managers and that transfers within a department do not require a vote of the Town Council provided the funds are available in that department’s budget.
The forklift became a concern of Mrs. Clemence and Mr. DiPietro when they, along with Councilor Rick Nash, took a tour of the DPW barn last month.
“The big concern, we went through our walkthrough, we saw this great forklift — it’s beautiful, green I think, or purple, I don’t know, green I think — and found out that it was $27,000. And I’m sorry, I was blown away by the cost and what it could do, except that we wondered how come we didn’t debate this issue,” recalled Mrs. Clemence. “Stuff like this comes to council … it’s a courtesy.”
Mr. DiPietro knew the discussion had the potential to be contentious and sought to “set a tone” as part of his opening remarks.
“I believe this will be an extremely productive conversation between management and council,” he asserted. “If everyone leaves their attitudes at the door, I think we can go somewhere with this, I really do.”
More than one hour later, a visibly frustrated Mr. Nash lamented that the chairman’s wishes had not been adhered to: “I appreciate your opening remarks where you requested we leave attitudes at the door. Myself included, that hasn’t happened tonight. Councilor Clemence is whispering at the town manager at the end of the table here, as we saw at council a couple weeks ago.”
Mr. Nash’s comments came within minutes of a fourth side conversation between Mrs. Clemence and others at the table, each of which was captured on the video of the meeting.
Mrs. Clemence immediately reacted angrily: “What?! Point of order, Mr. Chair. Councilor Nash is out of order. I was not whispering at the last meeting, ask Councilor Steeves, I did not speak with him about that and I am not whispering to the town manager now.”
Mrs. Clemence asked again for a ruling on her point of order, but Mr. DiPietro did not respond. Mr. Nash moved on to root out the intent of the agenda item discussion, while Mrs. Clemence gathered her belongings and exited the meeting. She was the third councilor to leave during the first half of the 150-minute meeting; Councilors Kristen Auclair and Monique Manna had left several minutes earlier without comment.
Discussion or Witch Hunt?
Mr. DiPietro explained the agenda item’s intent was to assure such transfers and purchases will come before the Town Council in the future, rather than assign blame. “This isn’t a McCarthy trial, this isn’t a witch hunt,” he insisted, later adding that it was not the “Spanish Inquisition.”
Mr. Nash suggested otherwise: “We are at a point where you haven’t presented what your goal for the discussion was. So what recourse, what frame of, what sort of action are you looking for here? Are you looking to fire the town manager, which was the elephant in the room, I’ll say, because that’s what my expectation was when you bring up such claims as the last statement you made in the charter about recourse, when it gets down to reimbursement to the town, if there was indeed a violation.”
He asked the panel’s chairman, “Can you please, or if Councilor Clemence prefers to do it, state for the record what are you looking to do here? Because I see the next step as going to General Government and let’s review policy and the charter.”
Mr. Nash would revisit this line of questioning near the conclusion of the meeting, seeking clarity on what Mr. DiPietro’s “ultimate goal for resolution” was. “Where are we going? What do you expect? You made the statements to open this discussion,” Mr. Nash pressed. “What do you want to do? We can continue the discussion if we know where you want to go. It was your agenda item, sir.”
Mr. DiPietro had noted earlier that he had spent “hours studying the charter” and became “convinced” the forklift purchase was “a flagrant violation of charter.” He added, “This is becoming an increasing trend and there are fingers to be pointed in both directions, management and council, in my opinion.”
Mr. Nash challenged Mr. DiPietro’s conclusion, pressing for evidence of such a violation.
“If you’re going to say that there is a charter violation, then lay it out,” Mr. Nash insisted.
“This particular purchase, in my opinion and my research, violates the charter in three or four different directions, but certainly in transfer of funds and in the purchase of itself circumventing council,” Mr. DiPietro responded.
Mr. Nash was not satisfied and pressed further: “You’re making blanket statements that have no substance. You hand us a packet of information without justification of your remarks, including flagrant violation. Are we just assuming that what you’ve highlighted is your backup?
“You’re making statements that are unjustified and you haven’t made your case,” Mr. Nash continued. “You’re making very basic statements without pointing to the specific parts of the charter, where you have come to the conclusion or an opinion that violations have occurred. I’d like to hear that laid out if you’re going to make that statement, rather than relying on someone else to step forward and do it. You made the statement. I’d like you to point to the particular components.”
Mr. DiPietro read a list of seven sections of the charter he believed to have been violated, specifically from its chapters on the Town Council (2-4-1, 2-4-5), Town Manager (4-2-3), and Financial Provisions and Procedures (10-1-1, 10-12-1, 10-15-2): “We were not informed of the purchase of this forklift. We were not informed that there was an intention for this forklift. We were not informed that there was a need for this forklift,” he argued.
Mr. DiPietro said the forklift was not specifically included in the current town budget or its “six-year budget.” Ms. Blakeley, the DPW chief, noted the forklift “was on my management plan.” Mr. San Angelo said the forklift had previously been a “recommended purchase” by the DPW, but was not acquired at the time due to budgetary constraints. Mrs. Blakeley added that the town manager “can’t fund everything, he doesn’t put everything into your plan. It’s not all listed.”
Earlier in the evening, Mrs. Clemence had speculated the town manager chose to avoid bringing the purchase before Town Council because “maybe he felt that we probably wouldn’t vote for it.” She added that unanticipated purchases are routinely supported by the Town Council, and the controversy could have been avoided by bringing it forward.
“I would say 98 percent of the time we don’t say no, and we might not have said no here,” she said. “Point is a large purchase was made. It should have come to subcommittee, as has been the practice, as you informed it was going to, or could’ve, would’ve, should’ve, but didn’t.
“Why is it that this public body never got the opportunity to say, ‘Geez, how much is that going to be? How much are we spending? It’s like the cost of a police cruiser, which we debate ad nauseum,” Mrs. Clemence continued. “It makes me ill when councilors get all bent out of shape about the equipment that we need at times. Yet this piece of equipment, the manager didn’t seem to feel that we needed to talk about it.”
Mr. San Angelo said the old forklift had broken down and needed to be replaced. To acquire it, he said, Mrs. Blakeley “reprioritized” her budget to make room for the purchase. The old forklift was sold for scrap, helping to reduce the Town’s overall expenditure.
Subcommittee citizen member Steve Lazo, a former town councilor, said the forklift purchase was necessary, but believes the appropriate process was not followed. Mr. Lazo referred to the old forklift as “the thing” and “a piece of junk.”
“Mr. Town Manager, I don’t agree with how you did this, I really don’t,” he said. “My years on council, I’ve never seen this done this way. I think there are a lot of questions that are not answered.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Mr. Lazo called on officials to look at the process and not worry to affix blame. “I think we should work on how it was done and not point fingers. Let’s straighten it out,” he said. “Don’t point fingers at (Mrs. Blakeley), the town manager, or anybody.”
Charter Clarity Concerns
Mr. DiPietro described some language of the town charter as “messy” or “scary,” while Council Vice Chairman Gus Steeves billed portions as being “a little unclear.”
Among the specific portions that appeared to be problematic was disagreement over whether funds can be transferred unilaterally within a department and what constitutes a “program.”
Section 10-12-1 of the charter permits the Town Council to transfer “any unencumbered appropriation balance among programs within a department, office, or agency and may transfer part or all of any unencumbered appropriation balance from one department, office or agency to another.”
Town Accountant and Finance Director Karen Harnois offered insight from her experience: “Right now, there’s a transfer from one department to another, it goes to Town Council, no question about that. There are not programs within a department; a department is a program; and, what we do when we pass the budget is we vote bottom-line department, so that’s how we’re defining it. That’s why we’re saying we can transfer between line items in a budget, within a departmental budget, because the department is actually a program.”
Wil Cournoyer, the town’s principal assessor, agreed: “It’s always been the interpretation that transfers within a department were authorized as a program by the town manager. It’s always been the policy since I’ve been here. Since 2001 … probably much longer than that.”
Mr. San Angelo said, “Transfers could occur within a department, but they can’t occur between departments.” Further, the town’s sewer and water departments fall under the direction of Mrs. Blakeley and “is considered one department, the DPW.” He cited an accepted past practice as evidence of the administration’s interpretation of the charter.
Mr. DiPietro disagreed, insisting that Mr. San Angelo had offered “a very weak argument” and that past practice as a basis of operating “is not an acceptable answer.”
Mr. Steeves disagreed with the town manager’s stance as well: “Although they are under the same umbrella, the water and sewer departments are legally separate entities by definition, by law. We can’t just raid the water and sewer funds.”
Mrs. Harnois maintained the process followed was legal and in adherence to the charter: “The money is actually appropriated, it’s in the DPW budget, it’s in the water budget, and it’s in the sewer budget. Because we vote bottom line … we consider it a program. We would never do anything, spend on anything, when money is not appropriated.”
The town manager was frustrated by the claims of charter violations and insisted he was following the same procedures as his predecessors.
“The accusation that was made at me tonight was that I was violating charter. If in fact that’s true, then every department head has been violating charter for years in this town because that’s the way the interpretation has gone on for years,” Mr. San Angelo said. “This hasn’t been interpreted this way for years and years and years by Town Councils, and all of a sudden you’re going to interpret it this way and say I’m guilty now when it’s been like this for years.”
He added, “You can’t badger me for following the process that was established here in town.”
Building and Health Inspections Director Andrew Pelletier affirmed the town manager’s assessment.
“The United States is based on common law, which is you do what the last guy before you was approved to do. So, I believe Mr. San Angelo was working in total clarity and there was no vagueness or confusion in the interpretation of the charter at that point,” Mr. Pelletier said. “In good faith he was working in clarity.”
Amount of Money Matters
Administrators and department heads openly questioned subcommittee members as to whether any and all transfers for overtime and miscellaneous expenses should no longer take place without first going before the Town Council.
“I have a big problem right now because I’m put into a box and my department heads are all being put into a box tonight,” Mr. San Angelo told the panel. “If you read this section of the charter literally the way you’re interpreting it tonight, every transfer has to be approved by this council. That’s what this says if you want to read it, interpret it the way you are.”
Police Chief Shane Woodson said such an interpretation will become a problem: “If this how you’re reading it, I’m going to be coming to a subcommittee every two weeks because every single pay period I’m transferring money from one account to another.”
Chief Woodson referenced a stabbing on Tuesday, stating the number of officers involved and called in to work overtime would cost the town upward of $10,000: “I’m going to be transferring, next pay period, $10,000 from salary to overtime … I need clarity, that’s why I’m here.”
Others also questioned how to handle transfers going forward.
“I’m afraid to go to work tomorrow and do what transfers need to be done,” Mr. Pelletier said. “So as soon as possible this committee should move this to whatever committee it has to go to in order to determine what does 10-12-1 mean, and I would ask that we be invited as department heads to participate in this working group type of discussion. What is that dollar line that we can’t exceed? Because if I can’t go out and buy a level without your approval, that’s a problem.”
“How do we proceed? No one wants to violate the charter. We don’t want to continue doing anything that is incorrect,” Mrs. Harnois asked. “So how would you advise that we proceed from tomorrow on until this is further clarified?”
Mr. DiPietro said he did not have the authority to unilaterally make such a determination. “That’s why I have a room full of smart people here. We’re trying to figure this out,” he said. “This is a discussion. There’s no rulings being made this evening by council.”
The town manager was not satisfied by the response. “Then you can’t later accuse my department heads of breaking the charter because they’ve come to you with this issue and said how do we fix it,” Mr. San Angelo said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
David Adams, a resident who has recently taken out nomination papers for a seat on the Town Council, urged committee members to provide a clear path forward.
“You’re policymakers. Set the policy,” he said. “Now people are starting to question what they’re supposed to do. They’re walking on eggshells. That’s poor management, alright. Don’t micromanage these people, allow them to do their jobs. If you want to change something, if you want to change policy, change policy. But do that without the subject matter experts being ridiculed and pointing fingers at these guys that you hired to do their job.”
Mr. Nash said the lack of clear direction was a problem, as was a lack of communication between concerned councilors and the town manager.
Mr. DiPietro admitted that in the three-plus weeks between the tour of the DPW and Tuesday night’s meeting, he had not brought his concerns forward to the town manager.
The entire DPW subcommittee meeting is available for viewing on Southbridge Community Television’s YouTube page by clicking here.
In the original posting of this story, a typographical error led to a graphical quote from Town Councilor Rick Nash as being attributed to “Rock Nash.” The Chronicle regrets the error.