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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Amherst trending slowly toward better transparency

AMHERST – Retired Fire Chief Rick Crocker no longer jumps in the car and speeds off when the alarms sound.

But he’s spending a lot of time these days trying to cool overheated residents. ...

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AMHERST – Retired Fire Chief Rick Crocker no longer jumps in the car and speeds off when the alarms sound.

But he’s spending a lot of time these days trying to cool overheated residents.

Over the last year or so, the vast majority of the figurative “little fires” that frustrated residents brought to the attention of Crocker and other members of the Amherst Citizens Association can be traced to Town Hall.

“Our current board is clearly not being open and transparent with taxpayers,” Crocker said, referring to selectmen. “I get calls almost every day from people who are angry. And they get madder when I tell them what’s going on.”

From all accounts, displeasure over the direction in which the wheels of town government are turning – or not turning – has been swelling for the better part of a year. A growing number of residents, including a fair number of mostly former town and civic officeholders, say they’re coming away empty-handed far more often than not in their quest for even the most basic answers.

Resident concerns over what some felt was a growing trend toward secrecy in Town Hall first surfaced during the town administrator hiring process in the summer of 2011.

Nonpublic sessions were common during July and part of August, including at least one instance when members reported directly to the Town Hall basement meeting room for an entirely nonpublic session.

Despite repeated queries on the progress of the town administrator search, Selectman Chairman Bruce
Bowler and others remained mum throughout the process. Bowler eventually revealed there had been 21 candidates and three finalists, none of whom were named.

When the process was over, Selectman Jim O’Mara was selected as the new administrator, and he stepped down from the board. One of O’Mara’s first orders of business was to decline to answer a Telegraph reporter’s questions about whether he planned to collect a state pension he earned as superintendent of the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections at the same time he was to work full time in Amherst.

“I haven’t given it any thought,” he said. When pressed, he told the reporter firmly, “Move on.”

As it turns out, O’Mara is one of those government employees who gets to pull down a pension and a salary, a practice known as double dipping, because Amherst has a separate retirement plan for town employees.

Between the two sources of income, O’Mara is taking home about $150,000 a year in income, public records show. Of that amount, about $94,000 comes from his salary as town administrator and the other $56,000 comes from the state Retirement System.

The dissatisfaction over the lack of answers in town came to a boil in 2012 when O’Mara was suspended with pay as the town looked into the unauthorized purchase of a $150,000 truck for the Public Works Department.

Closed meetings held

A review of meeting minutes from June 2012 to Jan. 28 – the most recent minutes posted on the town website – shows the board met in nonpublic session a total of roughly 23 hours compared with 36 hours in public session, or about 40 percent of the time.

The nonpublic minutes were eventually unsealed and made public in most cases, offering a bit of insight into two significant actions the board took: hiring O’Mara, and how they dealt with the investigation into the truck purchase.

The release on Jan. 21 of the minutes of the Dec. 5 special nonpublic meeting at which the board discussed the upcoming truck investigation reveals that selectmen decided then to put O’Mara on leave.

Dwight Brew, Tom Grella and George Infanti attended the meeting, while Bowler and Brad Galinson participated via phone. The board “discussed information it felt required further investigation,” according to
the minutes, then decided, based on information provided by town attorney William Drescher, that the investigation “would best be (conducted) if … O’Mara was placed on paid administrative leave.”

Infanti made the motion, seconded by Grella, to put O’Mara on paid leave. The vote was unanimous.

But the selectmen said, rightly or wrongly, that they were prohibited from publicly discussing anything about O’Mara’s sudden disappearance. That silence triggered the firestorm of criticism that town officials strove to do town business out of the public eye.

“We have a town administrator who … is by all accounts doing a good job, who is suddenly put on administrative leave with no reason being given,” Mark Vincent, an Amherst Citizens Association member, said at the Jan. 14 meeting.

“The taxpayers deserve answers to these questions. We need to know what is going on with the town administrator position.”

Bowler said the board was unable to honor the request because the information is part of “the internal personnel file of the individual.”

After prodding by several residents and receiving two Right to Know requests, Bowler eventually revealed that O’Mara was on paid leave, but it did little to calm concerned residents. Many wondered aloud if the board even took a vote to put O’Mara on leave.

“Where is the vote?” Crocker asked at the time. “There is no record of a vote being taken. There has to be some explanation to the people of Amherst.”

The seemingly simple question wasn’t answered until Jan. 21, when the Dec. 5 nonpublic minutes were unsealed.

However, the growing controversy didn’t hurt the only selectman running for re-election this past week. Dwight Brew garnered the most votes – 1,232 – among the four candidates running for his seat and the one vacated by Infanti’s decision not to seek re-election.

But voters may have sent a more subtle message by electing John D’Angelo, a newcomer to both the town and politics, to fill Infanti’s seat. The other two candidates, Marilyn Peterman and Reed Panasiti, are former selectmen.

Getting answers

During O’Mara’s absence, The Telegraph filed a Right to Know request seeking O’Mara’s contract with the town and his letter of hire. Weeks later, after O’Mara returned to work and a call of complaint to the town attorney, Bowler and O’Mara confirmed that no town department heads or employees, except for those who are part of a collective bargaining unit, have contracts with the town.

In compliance with the request, Bowler later emailed a copy of O’Mara’s employment letter of Aug. 10, 2011, telling him selectmen unanimously approved his hire at a starting salary of $92,560. The letter states that after six months, pending a favorable review, O’Mara’s salary would rise nearly $2,000 to $94,411.

Selectmen sweetened the deal a bit, agreeing to waive the traditional probationary period for O’Mara and made him eligible to receive benefits starting his first day on the job.

Selectmen also agreed that it wouldn’t terminate O’Mara “without just cause” in his first two years.

As for O’Mara’s leave and the truck issue, Galinson took some time at the Jan. 21 board meeting – the day the nonpublic minutes were unsealed – to explain what selectmen said they couldn’t talk about before.

“When the board or the town refuses to give information to the public or to the press, it is not to be sly or to withhold information,” Galinson said, continuing, “The board would love to disclose everything they possibly can” if for no other reason than “they do not get calls and emails.”

Galinson cited town officials’ responsibility to “follow the law and legal advice from counsel,” saying, “Any information that would put the town, board or employees at risk” would be withheld 100 percent of the time.

He also said the results of a town-funded independent investigation, which “had nothing to do with theft or missing money,” are exempted from the Right to Know law and “will never be released, nor will the town administrator have access to them.”

Since O’Mara had returned to work, and the investigation found nothing wrong “other than that the truck was purchased and the procedures were not followed – which has since been corrected,” Galinson said, there is no need for the board, town counsel “or anybody else to take further action.”

Bowler and O’Mara have recently complied with most other Telegraph Right to Know requests, including a 2012 request for town salaries that was finally answered shortly after a Feb. 3 Telegraph editorial took the town to task for falling short on its Right to Know obligations.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).