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Can new law solve Putney personnel pickle?

Voters explore measures to address town clerk/treasurer issue; Germon’s attorney charges that job description made role ‘untenable’

PUTNEY—After nearly seven months of having an absent town clerk and treasurer, approximately 140 residents petitioned the Selectboard to consider changing those positions from elected to appointed.

This request will allow the Selectboard to place the articles on the Town Meeting warning.

On March 6, through Australian ballot, voters will ultimately decide if the town clerk and treasurer will continue on as elected officials, or if the Selectboard can appoint those positions.

At last year’s Town Meeting, Denise Germon, a long-time employee in the town offices, was elected to a three-year term as Putney’s town clerk and treasurer.

But by May 26, Germon stopped coming to work and didn’t notify the Selectboard or Town Manager of her intention to quit or come back.

She “left of her own volition,” said Selectboard Vice-Chair Josh Laughlin.

Germon, however, is technically still in office, and her term ends in March 2020.

According to statute, the only way to vacate the office of an elected official is if that person resigns, dies, moves from the area, or “becomes unable to perform [...] her duties due to a mental condition or psychiatric disability.”

Because the positions are elected, nobody in the town offices, including the Selectboard, has any authority over the town clerk or treasurer. The positions are parallel in hierarchy.

Also at the Dec. 6 meeting, Selectboard Chair Scott Henry pointed out that if the voters decide to change the town clerk and treasurer’s positions to appointed seats, “it’s not necessarily a permanent decision.”

He added, “The voters at any time can reestablish the [elected] process,” an option confirmed by Interim Town Manager Chip Stearns.

‘For just cause’

Weeks before Germon stopped coming to work, the Legislature passed Act 27, “An act relating to appointing municipal clerks and treasurers and to municipal audit penalties.”

Now, under Title 17 of the Vermont statutes, townspeople may vote at Town Meeting to authorize the legislative body — in this case, the Selectboard — to appoint a town clerk and treasurer. The same legislative body can also remove those same public officials “for just cause after notice and hearing.”

At the Dec. 6 regular Selectboard meeting, Stearns notified the Board that a resident delivered the petition, with an adequate number of signatures, to Assistant Town Clerk Barbara Taylor.

Stearns told Board members that he wrote the petition “at the request of a voter who wanted a petition that would be properly worded.”

“There are often requests made to town managers to provide help to the public, and this is no different,” Stearns said.

Laughlin noted the Selectboard had discussed this at previous meetings, and made it clear they would consider the option to change the terms of the town clerk and treasurer’s positions if the public requested it.

Henry explained the Board’s reasoning. “Simply, we’ve been unable to operate [in the town offices] effectively under these circumstances and we’re asking for that possibility to do so.”

‘Untenable’

Germon hasn’t directly communicated with the Town Manager, the Selectboard, or The Commons, but her attorney, Fletcher Proctor, has done so.

In Proctor’s exchanges with Putney officials, he said the reason Germon left her post is because she found the treasurer’s position “untenable.”

Proctor appeared during two December Selectboard meetings to question the changes the Board made to the treasurer’s duties prior to the 2017 Town Meeting.

According to a letter Proctor submitted to the town offices, which he read into the record at the Dec. 6 Board meeting, he asserts other town office employees “undermined and sabotaged” Germon’s efforts, and “as soon as she was elected, Denise ran into trouble in being able to perform the duties.”

One of Proctor’s main arguments is that the Selectboard incorrectly changed the treasurer’s duties just before the 2017 Town Meeting, and Germon was unaware of the new structure.

At the Dec. 13 meeting, a heated discussion ensued among Proctor, Selectboard members, and attendees.

“When Denise ran for the position, the terms of the treasurer were clear,” Laughlin said.

Resident Alice Maes asked Proctor, “Does that mean Denise didn’t like the job she ran for?”

“If she had even known how it would be, she wouldn’t have run for treasurer,” Proctor said.

According to a May 22 letter that former Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard submitted to the Selectboard, the changes to the finance department’s structure were “accepted by the board and the budget [was] created around that idea.”

In multiple Selectboard meetings in late 2016 and early 2017, the Selectboard and Stoddard discussed hiring a part-time appointed bookkeeper to assume some of the treasurer’s duties.

These included day-to-day tasks such as payroll, filing cash receipts, reconciling statements, putting together bulk mailings, and sending out tax bills.

Some of the financial duties would also go to the finance director, who is currently also the town manager. Both are appointed positions.

According to Stoddard’s letter, none of this was a mystery to Germon.

“When the decision was made by Anita that she would retire, a conversation started with Denise about running for both clerk and treasurer. The treasurer position would be just a small stipend amount to sign checks, invest money, and make deposits. The rest was being covered by three other qualified employees allowing for segregation of duties and cross training,” Stoddard wrote.

Errors and troubling audits

The reason the Selectboard and Stoddard wanted to transfer some of these tasks was in response to errors former Town Clerk and Treasurer Anita Coomes made while she was still in office, and to a series of troubling audits from the mid-2000s.

Prior to Coomes’s retirement in March, the Selectboard and Stoddard frequently discussed Coomes’s failure to file a number of documents with state and federal agencies, including payroll reports and tax forms. Coomes also neglected to deposit multiple years’ worth of dog license payments.

Stoddard researched whether the town could transfer some of the treasurer’s duties. She contacted Garrett A. Baxter, senior staff attorney at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ Municipal Assistance Center. Stoddard also received word from town managers and administrators in Killington, Winhall, Enosburg Falls, Weathersfield, Manchester, and Dorset. All parties confirmed the idea as appropriate operating procedure.

But during the Dec. 13 meeting, Proctor called the advice that Selectboard members had received from the VLCT “legal baloney.”

“The treasurer has been reduced to a ceremonial function to just sign checks,” Proctor added, and there’s “no assurance” of checks and balances under this structure.

Stearns and Selectboard members objected to this characterization, with Stearns explaining the “hands” the finances pass through. While reconciling payment warrants every week, the treasurer has access to the invoices and the ledger.

And, he added, the Selectboard reviews the warrants. The town manager also sees all of this information, including the allocation coding for the ledger.

“The treasurer needs a lot of other eyes” on the finances, Maes said to Proctor, and town officials “assured us they do.”

“It’s a matter of control and hierarchy; it’s not just the number of eyes, it’s in the independence of those eyes,” Proctor said.

Matters in dispute

Proctor has also accused the Selectboard of refusing to pay Coomes, and barring her from the town offices, thus preventing a trained person from fulfilling the town clerk and treasurer’s duties during Germon’s absence.

“Anita is available, and you’re not letting her work,” he said.

Henry, Laughlin, and Stearns denied this.

Henry assured Proctor the town has paid Coomes to fill in. “She comes in to do whatever work she has to do,” Stearns said.

“That’s a far cry from not paying someone,” Henry added.

Resident Laura Chapman noted she had seen Coomes working numerous times in the town offices since Germon left.

At the Dec. 6 meeting, the Selectboard signed a “thank you” card for Coomes in appreciation for her covering extra hours in the town clerk’s office, performing town clerk and treasurer duties, and assisting with two school votes.

At the Dec. 13 meeting, Resident Ann Kerrey asked Proctor if Germon wants to return to her job, and what it would take to make that happen.

Proctor said Germon “has a bad taste in her mouth,” but “she cares very much about this town,” and “whether this job is tenable [for her] is up to this Selectboard.”

He said the only way Germon would return to her position is if the board makes structural changes to the treasurer’s duties.

Henry assured Proctor the Selectboard would not make any “further alteration to our [financial] procedures.”

“We’ve been petitioned, so we’ll see what the outcome is on that,” said Henry, who added, “or, if the current clerk/treasurer returns to work, we’ll deal with that.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #440 (Wednesday, January 3, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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