The Essex Regional Retirement Board stopped paying former executive director Timothy Bassett yesterday and demanded he return a portion of the hefty salary he's been collecting since he was fired.
Board members emerged from a 45-minute, closed-door meeting with their legal team — one of them literally ran down a hallway to stop an employee from processing the payroll — and cast a series of votes on Bassett's compensation.
Bassett has continued to receive his $134,250 salary even after the board — which he also used to chair — abruptly fired him on March 29. Contractually, the board had to keep paying him for 90 days after his termination date, and many believed the generous wording of his contract allowed him to continue collecting a paycheck through the contract's end date of December 2012.
After meeting with lawyers in executive session, the board publicly voted to halt Bassett's paychecks immediately and demand he return roughly one month's worth of pay, marking the period between the end of the contractual 90-day window and the present.
Board members also voted to begin the arbitration process, for which Bassett's contract says he is eligible.
Board Chairman Andrew Maylor hinted yesterday that other options may still be on the table.
"We've taken the time to evaluate the information in front of us and will continue to do that and expect more discussion and dialogue with board members. ... And we'll take all the steps necessary in what we think is in the best interest of the Essex Regional Retirement Board," Maylor said. "That's our job."
Earlier this year, the board's attorneys — the ones that Bassett had helped to hire — told members they could either pursue a costly arbitration process or enter talks to reach a settlement with Bassett.
Two board members met with Bassett's attorney about a month ago in a preliminary effort to explore settlement options. But it's clear the board has shifted course, at least for now, toward submitting the issue to an independent arbitration panel.
"I don't see a settlement at this time being in the best interest of the retirement system," board member Kevin Merz said.
The board's previous lawyers had advised members that a three-person arbitration panel costs each side about $600 an hour, and a decision might not be rendered for six months or more.
But Bassett would also have to pay for his share of arbitration costs, out of his own pocket.
Bassett's attorney, Carol Starkey, did not return a phone message seeking comment yesterday.
Board members also voted yesterday to request all legal documents and files from its previous law firms. In the months since Bassett's firings, board members were confronted with attorneys' bills they could not explain.
In one instance, members learned the board had spent tens of thousands of dollars on a law firm to represent Bassett on a matter before the Ethics Commission. To date, the commission has not issued a ruling on the matter.
Meanwhile, Maylor affirmed the board would continue to evaluate all its options.
"In the end, who knows what the outcome will be?" Maylor said. "But I think the best adjectives to describe our approach are 'multifaceted and aggressive.'"