WEST NEWBURY — Finance Director Tracy Blais is strongly denying she was in the wrong for taking $2,500 in annual merit bonuses over the past 14 years totaling $35,000.

She is also threatening legal action to address any false statements that may have been made against her, according to a written statement she released this week.

Blais' denial of wrongdoing comes three weeks after two of three selectmen voted not to renew her contract, which expires June 30. Selectman Dick Cushing was the dissenting vote.

According to her contract, Blais is earning $116,393 this year, plus a $3,390 longevity bonus.

Selectmen refuse to state publicly the precise reason for their decision not to renew Blais' contract. However, minutes of executive-session meetings made available last week suggest that part of the reason selectmen Chairman Tom Atwood and Selectman Glenn Kemper voted against rehiring the 19-year veteran finance director was because they believe she took the merit bonuses without authorization.

Three cases where Blais was overpaid in her biweekly salary also appear to have influenced the board's decision to let her go. Blais reimbursed the town for the over-payments totaling $6,972.76, but only after the merit pay controversy was becoming a sticking point for selectmen in the negotiation process.

While Blais did not hide that she was receiving the merit bonus, Atwood noted the fact that she was getting the extra money wasn't revealed until after he asked for a breakdown of her total pay.

Blais, who has not spoken publicly about the subject, issued a written statement to the press at the end of Wednesday night's selectmen's meeting, during which the standing room-only crowd of residents and town employees spoke passionately on both sides of the issue.

In her statement, Blais argued the merit bonuses she received during her tenure were approved and authorized by the Board of Selectmen.

"Prior to this evening, I had not been provided with any explanation as to the reason for the non-renewal of my contract," Blais said in her statement.

"I vehemently deny any suggestion made by Selectman Atwood or anyone else that during my employment I misappropriated any town funds, and my attorneys will be taking appropriate steps to address any false statements that have been made," she wrote.

Supporters of Blais said she was given a verbal OK by a former Board of Selectmen to put in for the merit bonuses, with the understanding that it was at selectmen's discretion whether to approve or reject the annual payroll warrant request for the amount. Supporters said selectmen consistently signed off on the payment annually since 1997.

However, there is nothing in writing backing that up.

Those supporting the selectmen's decision said Blais knowingly took money that she was not entitled to under her contract. The merit bonus was a sweetheart deal that is an example of the worst kind of back-room politicking, they argued.

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