WEST NEWBURY — A series of executive session minutes and other documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shed light on how town leaders handled a financial blunder by one of their own that has now spilled over into the public arena.
The issue involves a $27,439 debt accrued by Selectman Glenn Kemper when he fell behind on insurance premiums he owed the town.
The case appears to be dividing the community — with some residents firmly behind Kemper, calling him a generous, civic-minded public servant whose personal troubles were magnified by chronic instability within the town’s Finance Department.
But others say the selectman abused his power and knowingly attempted to keep facts from the public. He has lost the trust of voters and should step down, they contend.
“This entire experience has been a tremendous embarrassment to me — I didn’t want to tell people about it, including other selectmen,” said Kemper, who filed for personal bankruptcy in March 2015 after making some decisions that affected his successful catering business.
Ultimately, he owed the town $13,793 in back premiums and an additional $13,646 in charges accrued after filing for bankruptcy.
Under state law, elected officials who receive a stipend can enroll in their town’s group health insurance plan, which Kemper did in January 2013. By midyear, Kemper was behind in payments and stayed behind until his policy was canceled in December 2016.
According to executive session minutes dated Jan. 22, Kemper said he wanted to establish a payment plan to restore the amount to town coffers accrued postbankruptcy.
He said the delinquency was his fault but noted that former Finance Director Andy Gould “treated it casually and told him to ‘pay it when you can,’” the minutes state.
Minutes from March 18 reveal Selectman Joe Anderson proposed a five-year repayment plan of about $228 a month.
The following week, Town Manager Angus Jennings reported an error in payroll withholding of some union police and dispatch personnel dating back to 2017. By coincidence, the shortfall of Kemper’s prebankruptcy delinquency and the unpaid amount due to the overwithholding were nearly identical. Therefore, the books appeared to be balanced when they weren’t.
Because Selectmen David Archibald and Joe Anderson were never notified of the bankruptcy at the time it was filed, the town never made a claim to recoup the $13,793 in back premiums.
At a private meeting March 25, town counsel Michael McCarron noted that “responsibility for the town’s collections had been scattered among different staff members around that time, without consistent procedures in all instances.”
“There was a collective failure to address this,” McCarron said when discussing the financial fiasco in private session.
But resident Lark Madden sees it differently.
“Trying to make the story about the Finance Department is what Mr. Kemper would like — but it fails to focus on the person who for years did not pay his health care premiums despite reminders from the town, and was subsidized by the town and the taxpayers without authorization,” he said in a recent letter to the Finance Committee.
The prebankruptcy shortfall was identified in the 2018 audit as “an unauthorized” loan — which would need to be declared uncollectible and covered either by raising it on the year-end tax recap or with a warrant article on the Town Meeting floor.
“Selectman Kemper was aware of the postbankruptcy amount due all along, but had been under the impression that the prebankruptcy amount had been written off,” Jennings said.
“When Glenn became aware that the prebankruptcy amount was still on the town’s books, he was adamant that he wanted to pay back the total amount so this expense would not be passed on to the overall tax base,” Jennings said.
On April 5, Kemper submitted two cashier’s checks for $13,793 and $13,646.
“When the pressure became more intense, Mr. Kemper came up with the funds to pay his debt, despite being in bankruptcy,” Madden said. “This leads to significant questions about whether these funds may be susceptible to clawback by the bankruptcy court.”
On March 18, selectmen discussed privately the need for disclosing the situation to the public but it was kept secret for three more months.
When asked to explain this, Archibald responded, “This was when the new Board of Selectmen chairman put it on the agenda.” Archibald was appointed chairman after the May town elections. Prior to that, Kemper was chairman.
But Kemper insists “nobody was trying to hide anything.” Selectmen held off on speaking about it publicly because the issue is under state review.
“It’s a very serious and very complicated situation and we were given legal advice to respect the process of the inspector general,” he said.
“I’m sure it was a horribly uncomfortable situation for him and his family,” Gary Roberts said last week. He worried that the fact that Kemper was never charged interest on the money he owed would be problematic for other residents who are required to pay demand fees along with interest when they are paying their municipal bills late.
“It errodes the confidence of the public if there are different standards,” Roberts said.
“I offered to,” Kemper said when asked recently why no interest was applied. “I was willing to do anything they wanted me to do — and I am still willing — but I was told there was no mechanism in place to do so,”
“How can our highest executive office be held by a person who has intentionally benefited from unauthorized subsidies at the expense of the town and concealed this information for a period of years? This is a classic case of abuse of office,” Madden said. “Mr. Kemper has compromised the trust of the voters. He should resign for the good of West Newbury and in order to allow the voters he deceived to be properly represented.”
Resident Sandra Capo defended Kemper.
“A small group of people have worked to undermine Glenn for years, whether through things like the failed recall effort of a few years ago or outright personal attacks,” she said. “This is just another pathetic chapter in that story. The fact is, he paid his debt months ago and it’s time for everyone to move on.”
Jennings is implementing a policy triggering the notification of delinquency in insurance premium payments after 60 days and cancellation after 90 days. He’s instituted monthly reconciliations for the health insurance account and is hiring a financial assistant. Town officials agreed to rescind access for selectmen and assessors to the town’s insurance plan.