, Newburyport, MA

February 12, 2013

Newly hired chief assessor backs out of job


---- — WEST NEWBURY — Just one week after selectmen approved a starting salary for the new chief assessor, the candidate chosen to fill post has apparently changed her mind about coming to work here.

In a letter dated Jan. 30, Lauren Woekel of Pelham, N.H., notified finance director Warren Sproul of her decision and apologized for any inconvenience it might cause.

“I have spent the last few weeks contemplating my decision and unfortunately, I have too many reservations about the position and the town,” Woekel wrote.

At a meeting on Wednesday, Selectman Dick Cushing said he found the wording in Woekel’s letter “curious” given the recent history of employee departures and resignations from the town’s finance and assessors departments.

“We made convincing arguments for her to come and she found convincing arguments not to,” he said.

But when reached about her decision over the weekend, Woekel would only say that “travel, salary and benefits being offered from West Newbury” were considerations in her decision. “I decided that it was best for me and my family to remain in my current position with the Town of Tyngsborough,” she said.

Last month Woekel was selected from a pool of six candidates, all of whom were interviewed by Sproul and two members of the Board of Assessors. On Jan. 23 selectmen approved a starting salary for her of $75,000 and she was allotted three weeks vacation in her first year — one week more than stipulated in the town’s Personnel Policy. She was slated to begin work on Monday, February 11.

Sproul contacted Woekel immediately after she rescinded her acceptance.

“Two themes did come through in our conversation,” Sproul said on Friday. “One was that the salary differential was apparently not significant enough for the longer commute. The other theme was that there had been an outpouring of support from her current employer.”

Sproul has re-advertised the position and described himself as “optimistic” that he will be able to find “a highly qualified candidate from the next round of interviewees.”

Last month Ellen Jameson resigned as clerk for the assessor’s office. In her letter of resignation, Jameson did not cite any reasons for leaving her post. Her former boss, Karen Rassais, however, resigned as chief assessor in November, citing weariness over a difficult political climate in town in recent years. She was earning an annual salary of $86,681 at the time. Rassais’ departure followed a controversial change in the town’s finance director position and the resignation of the assistant treasurer position over the past 18 months.

At the close of Wednesday’s session, Selectman Glenn Kemper requested a meeting with the town accountant and department heads to review overtime procedures and payment calculations. Kemper said he is concerned that a previous problem with accuracy in whether employees are being paid according to their contracts has not been resolved. Kemper is refusing to sign any more payroll sheets until this issue clarified to his satisfaction.

Also during Wednesday night’s meeting, selectmen learned of two residents unhappy with the Energy Advisory Committee’s current proposal to adopt the state’s stretch code as part of the Town Building Code. Stephanie Stevens of Browns Lane, who attended the meeting, and John McNamara of Maple Street, who submitted correspondence on the topic, both indicated their wish to limit the scope of the code so that it would only impact new construction.

McNamara felt that to do otherwise could potentially subject most existing property owners to “un-mandated onerous financial burdens.”

Stevens asked that the Energy Advisory Committee hold additional public forums on the topic before its proposal is voted at the Annual Town Meeting. A video of a forum hosted by the committee on Jan. 24 is currently running on the town’s cable access station and may be viewed by Verizon customers on channel 42 and Comcast customers on channel 9.