During discussion on a proposed pay increase for non-representative employees, an alleged misappropriation of non-representative employee compensation was revealed from unsealed minutes at a recent Town Council meeting, according to officials.
As the proposed salary increase was being discussed in the Jan. 3 meeting, Councilor David Fischer said he had reservations about it because of an alleged misappropriation of funds that went to non-representative personnel in Fiscal Year 2015-16.
Fischer said “despite clear direction and public vote on this matter, the interim town administrators and town administrators” in FY-2015-16 allegedly authorized bonus and merit pay increases in excess of $50,000 to the non-representative employees. He said all other employees did not receive raises in FY 2015-16.
Fischer outlined the course of events that eventually led the Rockingham County Attorney’s Office to launch an investigation into the matter. But that probe was later halted when the county attorney found in November that there was insufficient evidence to move forward with an indictment, said Fischer, who criticized county attorney officials for not doing enough to investigate the matter.
During the discussion, Councilor Charles Foote asked for a point of order. Speaking to Council Chairman Brian Chirichiello, Foote said he believed the minutes pertaining to the information Fisher cited were sealed.
Foote said, “Mr. Chair I believe that as a point of order I believe that was sealed information.”
Fischer said, “We are discussing this information.”
“Foote then said, “I believe that was sealed information that was not duly voted on to unseal, to release that information publicly, for the record,” Foote said.
Chirichiello said, “I believe it was all sealed minutes.”
Chirichiello said he didn’t remember voting to unseal the minutes, as did Foote.
In the meeting, Fischer outlined at length the course of events relating to the alleged misappropriation of funds.
In February, Fischer said the former Town Council members discovered information about additional compensation to non-representative personnel that was allegedly authorized by administrators and an investigation was begun.
A new council took office in March, Fischer said.
In April, the new council received a report of the investigation into the matter that included comments stating that there was an allegedly deliberate attempt to deceive the council, Fischer said.
On April 19, the new council authorized an investigation by the county attorney’s office to determine if criminal charges were warranted, Fischer said.
But since nothing was done by September, Fischer said he and Councilor Richard Tripp met with a county attorney representative to discuss the status of the investigation.
In November the county attorney’s office sent a letter stating that there is insufficient evidence to move forward with an indictment, said Fischer, who criticized county attorney officials for not doing enough to investigate the matter.
Before casting his vote, Fischer explained why he opposed the pay increase.
“Make no mistake about it I am in favor of recognizing our employees for the important work they do with reasonable salary increases and benefits, but I will not sit back and allow this deliberate and deceitful mismanagement by our former top-level administrators when we as a Town Council have a fiduciary responsibility to the residents in our community,” Fischer said. “The public has a right to know about these inappropriate actions of spending taxpayer dollars when the council didn’t appropriate funds for these self-serving purposes. These actions were wrong and dishonest and should be resolved after further investigation. It will be shameful if this council doesn’t take any additional action to resolve this serious matter.”
He added, “Ultimately I believe we should table this matter until we determine who should receive a salary increase for FY17 and who should not.”
After listening to Fischer, Councilor James Morgan said there were “a lot of things in last nine months that have been discovered that could have been done better,” Morgan said, adding, “management policies that were in that place that could have been done better; there was governance that should have been done better in past years; there were policies that should have been updated; there were revenues that should have been increased.”
Morgan said he read the report Fischer mentioned on the investigation thoroughly. He said he tended to agree with Fischer that the investigation by the county attorney’s office wasn’t “very thorough.”
But Morgan said, “The bottom line here is there are employees, former employees, and former leadership in this town that are no longer working here that I believe that the buck stops there.”
Morgan said he couldn’t hold subordinates responsible for their superiors’ actions and when he didn’t have complete facts and data.
“Facts and data are ambiguous at best which is why the county attorney couldn’t find anything that was worth pursuing,” Morgan said. “I do believe that Councilor Fischer has a very deep passion that there was a wrong done here and I believe he is right in that but I also fully believe that the person responsible for that wrong is no longer employed by this town.”
Morgan said he would support the proposal for the 4 percent pay “based upon the benefit of the doubt that they were acting under their superior’s authority.”
Councilors went on to vote to approve the pay increase, with Fischer voting in opposition.
After the vote, Chirichiello addressed the matter of the unsealed minutes, saying “any sealed minutes that were sealed are not supposed to be discussed, and if any newspapers are asking for this stuff you are not allowed to give it out.”