, Newburyport, MA

October 11, 2012

Blais, West Newbury reach deal

Final payment contingent on Town Meeting vote

By Jennifer Solis Correspondent
Newburyport Daily News

---- — WEST NEWBURY — Officials in West Newbury have reached a settlement with former Finance Director Tracy Blais, resolving her legal claims against the community and three current and former selectmen, Town Counsel Michael McCarron announced yesterday.

The $100,000 settlement ends “all inquiries about Ms. Blais’ work for the town,” according to a statement issued yesterday by McCarron on behalf of the Board of Selectmen.

“The parties wish to avoid the cost and expense of prolonged litigation and focus on moving forward with other priorities,” the statement said. “The board is relieved that Ms. Blais has withdrawn all claims against the town, (Thomas) Atwood, (Glenn) Kemper and (John) McGrath; and that no wrongdoing was found by the inspector general. The town wishes to thank Ms. Blais for her years of dedicated service to the town.”

However, the final payment could be only $60,000.

Last month, the Finance Committee approved a $40,000 reserve fund transfer to bind the settlement. The town’s insurance company has agreed to pay $20,000. A request of $40,000 to fund the balance of the settlement has been included on the warrant for the Special Town Meeting on Oct. 29. Should voters decline to approve that request, Blais would be paid $60,000. She has agreed not to fight the will of Town Meeting and would accept $60,000.

Blais, who has since been hired as town administrator in Newbury, declined to comment yesterday, saying only, “We all agreed that the joint statement would be the only public comment made by the parties involved.”

In her lawsuit, filed in 2011, Blais asserted discrimination, defamation and failure to honor the 19-year veteran finance director’s contract. Atwood, Kemper and McGrath strongly rejected the charges.

According to a document filed in Salem Superior Court, Blais was initially seeking $500,000 in damages. However, discussions on the actual amount of the suit and other details have all occurred in private sessions.

Selectmen Bert Knowles and Dick Cushing have both strongly disagreed with the decision made when Atwood and Kemper were on the board not to renew Blais’ contract after questions were raised over the legality of annual bonuses for her that selectmen had apparently signed off on over the years.

Blais’ suit contended the real reason she was not rehired was a desire for retaliation by Atwood and Kemper for an alleged sexual harassment complaint she issued against McGrath in 2007.

In 2008, Blais and McGrath entered into a private grievance resolution, in which neither party waived or released their claims. McGrath resigned as selectman in the middle of his term in July 2008.

In March 2011, selectmen ordered a $25,000 forensic internal control review of the Finance Department. It revealed some cases of both overpayment and underpayment in a sampling of employee payrolls, but the state inspector general’s office cleared Blais of all allegations of legal wrongdoing eight months later.

Selectmen have not requested repayment from any employee who was identified in the audit as being overpaid, nor has the town reimbursed any employees who were identified as having been underpaid.