Westhampton Beach Village trustees are moving forward with a series of safeguards designed to secure the municipality’s finances, following several fiscal reviews that some say highlight flaws with the current system.
Deputy Mayor Hank Tucker said because of problems with village finances, steps must be taken to ensure that such issues do not arise again down the road. He said this week that trustees are working with the new village clerk, Elizabeth Lindtvit, to create resolutions that he said will erase any ambiguity in current laws that, as they now stand, are subject to interpretation.
He added that trustees intend, at a board meeting on Thursday night, May 9, to review a long-awaited audit that has been the center of much of the controversy. The roughly 300-page document—the findings of which have not yet been discussed in public or adopted by the board—has been at the center of the controversy for the past few months. The audit documented two payroll errors committed by the former village clerk, Rebecca Molinaro, who recently left her post. But other financial reviews, including one completed this spring by the state comptroller’s office, did not flag any apparent errors.
“What’s next is, we make sure we put better checks and balances in place so we can make sure these situations do not happen again,” Mr. Tucker said.
He said one of his main goals is to make it clear in policy that no one—not even Mayor Conrad Teller—can authorize any payment using taxpayer money without the entire Board of Trustees first approving the transaction. At the present time, the mayor, as the village’s chief financial officer, can authorize such payments as he sees fit, and two payments in particular—one made to former employee Susan O’Rourke, now deceased, and the other to Westhampton Beach Police Chief Ray Dean—have upset Mr. Tucker and some of the other trustees.
While he does not oppose measures to secure village finances, Mr. Teller said the other trustees are making an issue out of the payments because they either do not like the person, as in Chief Dean’s case, or are questioning decisions made by him as mayor, as with Ms. O’Rourke. Prior to her death, Ms. O’Rourke was granted six months of paid medical leave by the mayor, though Mr. Tucker and others have argued that she was not entitled to those benefits because she did not work full-time for three consecutive years.
Mr. Teller said the audit outlines some of the financial errors made at Village Hall, including payroll errors, but that the other trustees are exaggerating the problems to garner favor with the public.
“The Village Board has the right to question all finances—I don’t disagree with that,” Mr. Teller said. “But we have never had a problem in this village that I know of, and we are making a mountain out of a molehill.”
The plan to implement stronger rules was rolled out following discussions last week, which took place in executive session, about the audit completed by Satty, Levine and Ciacco. Last week, several pages of the report that had been previously redacted by the village were released to The Press; the pages focus on details relating to the medical leave taken by Ms. O’Rourke prior to her death last June.
According to those pages, Ms. O’Rourke was paid more than $10,000 over three months. During that time, she was also accruing vacation and compensatory time totaling more than $3,000 but was never paid for either, according to the document.
The report also states that Ms. O’Rourke was authorized to take the leave by Mr. Teller based on his interpretation of the code pertaining to medical leave. He has explained that she qualified because she had been employed by the village for at least three years, even though they were not consecutive and not always in a full-time capacity. The mayor has defended his decision, noting that the policy does not specify whether workers have to be employed full time; it only states that they must have worked for the village for at least three years.
It is not clear if the board is looking to recoup any of the money from Ms. O’Rourke’s survivors. And the newly released audit pages do not state, one way or the other, if the village made a mistake by granting her the medical leave.
But Mr. Tucker said it is such interpretations that make him want to overhaul the village’s code. He said he wants to make sure that such decisions are not left up to one person.
“We need to make sure we have things in place and to make sure that people are not spending money without board approval,” he said. “We are going to look at the procurement policy more, make sure it reflects the wishes of the whole Board of Trustees and the mayor.”
The other redacted pages released last week focused on contractual payments made to Chief Dean, including the overpayment of vacation time that the mayor said has since been returned to the village.
Mr. Teller said the code changes that Mr. Tucker is seeking must first be approved by the village attorney, Richard Haefeli, and are expected to be discussed more at a board work session on Wednesday, May 22.
“These are resolutions that we are trying to put into place that will really equate to policy and procedure where there is none, and if there is, where it is not really concrete,” Trustee Patricia DiBenedetto said. “There is a lot of ambiguity in some of them that we are trying to find out.
“As we have been told, it is a matter of interpretation,” she continued. “We don’t want anything to be misinterpreted that can benefit the taxpayers.”