WEST NEWBURY – Although it appears a settlement may have been reached in a $500,000 lawsuit filed against the town by former Finance Director Tracy Blais, the details of the alleged agreement remain illusive.
At a meeting on Monday, the Finance Committee rejected a request by selectmen “to partially fund a proposed settlement for the Blais lawsuit” with a $40,000 reserve fund transfer into the selectmen’s expense account. The vote was 3 to 2 in favor of rejecting the request, pending the availability and review of a more formalized written document outlining the details of the settlement. “We’re not going to direct the agreement,” stressed Finance Board Chairman David Archibald, “We just want to see what it is.” Bill Bachrach and Joe Anderson vote against the motion; afterward Anderson said he would have preferred to have tabled – not rejected – the request pending further documentation. Last July Blais, whose contract was not renewed in 2011 after serving nearly two decades as West Newbury’s finance boss, filed suit against the town, selectman Glenn Kemper, and former selectmen Tom Atwood and John McGrath. She claimed they defamed her, discriminated against her and failed to live up to her contract. The men have strongly denied the charges. An attempt at mediation in March was unsuccessful. Blais left the West Newbury job to become the new town administrator in Newbury.
Selectmen have declined to speak publicly on the specific reasons for their decision to not renew Blais’ contract, but instead released 400 pages of executive session documents in which Atwood and Kemper voiced serious concerns about an annual $2,500 merit bonus they say Blais took for 14 years without authorization and a few payroll discrepancies in which she was overpaid. Blais reimbursed the town $6,972.76 for the payroll mistakes but insisted she was entitled to the merit bonuses. Selectmen have never asked her to repay the $35,000 they claim she took outside her contract.
In a separate complaint that Blais filed with the state Commission Against Discrimination, she contended that during the course of her employment, she was “subjected to sexually offensive, hostile and harassing treatment” in the form of “a series of sexually crude, unwelcome and inappropriate comments” by McGrath when, as selectman, he was her direct supervisor.
Shortly after Archibald called the public session to order on Monday. the committee appeared confused by the reasoning behind the selectmen’s request. Selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles said minutes of a vote his board had apparently cast regarding the settlement should have been attached to the request form. When none was located, someone in the audience went to search for Town Clerk/Town Counsel Michael McCarron, but he had apparently left for the evening.
Eventually, Archibald moved to go into an executive session with the three Selectmen and Finance Director Warren Sproul, citing a need to “discuss strategy regarding litigation.” After meeting for more than an hour behind closed doors for a discussion that was at times loud enough for portions to be heard in the adjoining hallway, the selectmen and Sproul were ushered out of the meeting room and the Finance Board continued to convene by itself privately for another 15 minutes. Kemper told the committee he didn’t agree with the plan to use funds from the reserve account to partially cover the settlement amount. That accountant should be kept only for “unforeseen expenses” he argued. Instead he suggested funding the entire settlement through another source that selectmen are apparently considering tapping to fund the agreement. But neither the total amount of the settlement nor the other funding source was named. Selectman Dick Cushing noted that some information could not be made public while the litiation process was still ongoing. Selectmen were even disinclined to state an approximate date on which an agreement with Blais had been reached, claiming they could not recall when it was. According to the form dated July 19 the selectmen stated that the finance board should consider the need for their request as unforeseen “because the potential settlement was not finalized until after July 1, 2012.”