Yesterday’s Board of Finance Auditor Subcommittee meeting was odd (see my notes). Nothing was quite as it seemed.
Before the meeting, it was announced that a Q&A session would be held during the meeting, and that anyone who wanted to speak had to sign up in front, "as at Town Meetings" (where people do not have to sign up). There would also be time limits on the public comments part of the meeting (a half hour or so) and on each member of the public (3 minutes). When public comments began, the list and the time restrictions were, happily, ignored.
Holding public comments during a meeting, before adjournment, is something we have been seeking for years. It allows the public to hear people's comments on NHTV, as well as the answers given by board members. It also allows board members to benefit from the ideas and expertise of town residents and to reconsider their viewpoints, even their decisions, before it’s too late (once you adjourn, you can’t open a meeting again).
This was a victory for an increasingly participatory public. There have been more people in the audience, and more talking, each time this subcommittee meets. Come one, come all.
But I just learned that it was known that Channel 3 would be at the meeting, and that was one reason for the change of heart (the change did occur just the day of the meeting). Doing what's right by the public is one thing, being criticized for not doing it by a television reporter is another.
The meeting began with a discussion about splitting the annual and operations audits into two requests for proposal (RFPs), a topic that had not come up and for which there seemed to be no reason given. Then Mr. Hallahan switched over to talking about a forensic investigation, discussing its scope and his list of six forensic specialists to consider.
Mr. Doheny said that the subcommittee would come back to the forensic investigation later, but never left the topic, directing a question to Mr. Hallahan. Mr. Freda was completely on board, and wanted the forensic investigation to start as soon as possible, but felt that this could best be accomplished with one RFP (for all three jobs? It wasn’t clear). Mr. Doheny seemed to have no opposition. It was just a matter of determining scope, writing up an RFP (formerly he had said you can't do an RFP for a forensic investigation), and selecting a forensic investigator.
But Doheny presented a new problem: there is only one accountant in the Finance department (Mr. Swinkoski, the acting director) to oversee all three jobs, so they would have to be done one a time. He also kept saying that the forensic investigation would begin with a limited scope, apparently focused on the Community Services department and, possibly, on cash, overtime, and reimbursements in other departments, but this was only mentioned by Mr. Hallahan.
Then if the operations auditor found irregularities, the forensic investigation might be given a wider scope. The problem here, unstated at the meeting, is that the operations audit report, according to the RFP, is due November 15, so that the wider-scope forensic investigator would, presumably, not begin until after the election. This was a meeting where what was not said was more important than what was.
Also odd is the fact that, just last week, Mr. Doheny said the subcommittee had no authority from the Board of Finance (BoF) to select a forensic investigator. I asked about this, and there appeared to be a change of mind. But I agree: the subcommittee was not given this authority. So that if the subcommittee does select a forensic investigator, the BoF may very well say it doesn’t want to do this, that the forensic capabilities of the annual/operations auditor are just fine with them.
BoF chair Michael Peterson was in attendance at both the May 2 and May 9 subcommittee meetings, and his silence on this topic was louder than anything anyone said. If he felt that the subcommittee had the authority to hire a forensic investigator, there is no reason in the world why he would not have said so, and cleared the air.
The meeting appeared smooth and easy. After disagreeing on just about everything before, everyone seemed to agree. If you read the article in the Register, everything seems decided.
But nothing was decided. It looks like a forensic investigation, if there is to be one, will be very limited. People talked about no-bid contracts, but this was clearly not what Doheny and Freda had in mind, in terms of an investigation.
There is also still the problem of conflicts of interest. Our town attorney, Jeffrey Donofrio, has been implicated by Mr. Ierardi, who said he knew what Ierardi was doing. Donofrio certainly knows about all the illegal no-bid contracts, and he and his partner did nothing about them. Donofrio might have something to hide, and yet he is central to the selection of auditors and investigators, and the scope of their work.
Mr. Swinkoski worked directly under Mr. Palmeri and before that worked for the town's auditor. Both Mr. Palmeri and the town auditor's work will be investigated and critiqued by the forensic investigator and operations auditor. And yet according to the RFP, these people will report to Mr. Swinkoski. Before anything can actually be done, these conflicts of interest must be dealt with openly and honestly. One possible solution is to allow the state to oversee the forensic investigation.
When something looks too good to be true, it usually is. I hope I’m wrong.