, Newburyport, MA

October 12, 2013

After 'tumultuous year,' water department manager resigns

By Michelle Pelletier Marshall

---- — ROWLEY — In the latest of changes during a year of great flux in the town’s water department, business manager Laura Hamilton gave her resignation to the Board of Selectmen Monday, listing Oct. 18 as her last day.

Citing a “tumultuous past year” after 19 years with the department, Hamilton said the hours she was required to work and the responsibilities she was assigned were not in the purview of her hire. “I have always tried to do my best to serve the citizens of this town during this difficult time,” said Hamilton in her resignation letter.

As a result of Hamilton’s departure, the water department has a near-urgent need to find a replacement to handle the business functions, such as payroll, purchasing and accounts payable and receivable, that were among Hamilton’s responsibilities.

“We have a real need to fund the duties of the business manager and we need to do something quickly,” said Water Commissioner Tim Toomey.

A joint meeting of the water department Board and Board of Selectmen was called to address this issue. Also, selectmen agreed to transfer the $32,000 left in the business manager salary account to the expense maintenance account, allowing for the water department to hire a temporary accounting services company.

Residents will see this transfer up for approval on the town warrant at the Special Fall Town Meeting on Monday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pine Grove School.

Providing for interim services through the end of the fiscal year – June 30, 2014 – will allow the water department time to evaluate the possibilities of hiring another in-house business manager or outsourcing these responsibilities to a water management company.

“There have been such changes in the water department in the last year that we need to solidify the operations and give the board and operators a chance to see how things come together before we make the commitment to hiring a new business manager,” said Selectman Dave Petersen.

Toomey echoed Petersen’s sentiments, indicating the water board would look into what was in the best interest of the department and town before any decisions were made, and that at this stage, the need to get the deficit [from Hamilton’s leaving] filled quickly was priority.

The two boards were hopeful that the article would be approved at the Fall Town Meeting, and they could move forward quickly. Town administrator Deborah Eagan and Toomey agreed to create a Request for Proposals in preparation of hiring an accounting firm.

Over the year, the water department has been on the radar of town and state officials, beginning in January with an investigation into a $45,000 overage on the new garage addition built at the department’s 401 Central Street location. This resulted in charges of misappropriation of funds, violations of procurement laws and insufficient bid documentation causing the department to be closely monitored by the selectmen’s office and under the direction of the town administrator to organize its fiscal, procurement and operations management.

Then in February, the town was fined $25,000 by the DEP for the actions of the water department’s primary and secondary operators, Jason Masse and Jason Kneeland, respectively, who were found in illegal possession of untagged deer and with butchering deer at the Boxford Road well station. Both men resigned in March. During these months, Water Superintendent John Rezza was out for two non-consecutive months on medical leave, and Hamilton served as the interim superintendent.

Recent efforts to right the department include promoting current employee Rob Swiniarski, who had been with the water department for five years, to secondary operator earlier this spring, and hiring a new primary operator — Glenn Smith from the Georgetown Water Department, who began on July 29.

Since that time, Carmine Federico has been hired as the new administrative assistant in the department, and Peter King, who had worked as a water operator for the town of Topsfield, will start as the second secondary operator on Nov. 1.