Ferrisburgh board, clerk debate treasurer post

FERRISBURGH — After hearing opposition from incumbent town treasurer Chet Hawkins and suggestions from residents at their Tuesday meeting, Ferrisburgh selectboard members decided to step back and reconsider their approach to hiring a new treasurer.
The immediate effect of a half-hour discussion at Tuesday’s meeting was a selectboard decision to pull its newspaper ads for a treasurer, ads that resident Bob McNary said the Secretary of State’s office told him were illegal because treasurer is an elective position. Such an ad that had run in Monday’s Independent was pulled from this edition.
Hawkins, also the Ferrisburgh town clerk, said at the meeting he agreed with the selectboard that he and assistant town clerk and treasurer Pam Cousino need help with the increasingly complex treasurer’s job.
But, Hawkins said, the selectboard should not have over-ridden his willingness to step down in March by advertising the position now. Nor, Hawkins said, was it clear that the town required what the board was advertising for: “a full-time position (30-35 hrs/wk) with benefits.”
“We need someone for 10 or 15 hours a week,” Hawkins said. “And in three months we can get someone to run for treasurer. It’s just in three months I don’t feel the town’s going to collapse … Why the urgency for me to resign?”
Also, Hawkins repeatedly said he had a legal opinion from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that if the selectboard were to appoint a treasurer, it would lack the authority to fire the treasurer for poor performance or incompatibility with existing town office employees.
On the other hand, Hawkins said if he hired an assistant treasurer, he would have the authority to terminate the hire before March elections.
“If you appoint someone and it doesn’t work out well, you’re stuck with them,” Hawkins said. “My big concern was … I can terminate people, but you can’t if you appoint them.”
Selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence explained the board’s rationale. She noted points on which all agree: That Hawkins has essentially been treasurer in name only, that Cousino does the lion’s share of the job (she cannot hold the title because she lives in Vergennes), and that another employee is needed.
“I think the thought was you could get a better candidate if we advertised it as a treasurer’s position,” Lawrence said. “Because if we got another assistant treasurer we would be putting a Band-Aid on a situation we already have.”
Hawkins responded the current arrangement has worked for almost six years and could do so until the March election.
“For three months? Why couldn’t this mystery person who is going to be so wonderful come in and run for the job?” Hawkins said. “Is the job not being done?”
Selectman Jim Warden responded, “The job is not being done very well.”
And Lawrence added, “You have the title, but you’re not doing the job.”
Hawkins, who said he was upset he was not consulted enough before the board made its decision to advertise, then spoke.
“The job is getting done, and it is getting more and more complicated,” Hawkins said. “So we need more help. Correct? We all admit we need more help. So why don’t we hire more help instead of me resigning so you can get somebody who might do the job or might not do the job?”
McNary then threw a monkey wrench into the board’s plans, pointing out what he said were two serious problems with the board’s ad, issues that a high-ranking state official had confirmed.
“It would appear this ad says we are trying to hire a treasurer. According to Brian Leven, the assistant secretary of state, every town must elect a treasurer. A treasurer cannot be a hired position,” McNary said. “No. 2, a hired position cannot be mandated to be a town resident … I would hope you would rethink this, because it looks like you are in violation of state and federal (discrimination) law.”
Hawkins offered a solution: He would appoint an assistant chosen by the selectboard who would be a Ferrisburgh resident, and if all went well Hawkins would step down from his treasurer post.
“Why can’t I appoint them? You interview them, check everything over, make sure everything is perfect, then I appoint them as the assistant with the understanding I’m not going to run (for treasurer again),” he said. “Then if they work out good, perfect.”
Resident Carl Cole backed that solution, whether or not Hawkins kept the title.
“I can see a strong argument for a hired assistant treasurer. Because then you’re not limited to Ferrisburgh residents. And certainly, I have to agree just because Chet’s elected treasurer doesn’t mean he has to do the work, as long as he’s making sure the work is getting done,” Cole said.
“Which is kind of what his position is, and you can agree or disagree, but … you can advertise for an assistant treasurer without the residency requirement … Then you have the control that Chet’s suggesting, if the person isn’t doing the job, you can just find someone else.”
Even before making that move, Cole had another suggestion for the board.
“It seems to me what makes the most sense, No. 1, is to step back and figure out exactly what you’re doing,” he said.
As well as pulling the ads, which had not generated any applicants as of Tuesday, the board took that position at the end of the discussion.
“I think at this point we need to step back and look where we’re at,” said Selectman Jim Benoit.
Selectwoman Sally Torrey agreed.
“I think we should pull the ads, reassess where we’re at, and go on from there,” she said.
Despite the tension that showed up at times during the discussion, common ground showed up at the end.
“We certainly appreciate your coming forward with your frustrations,” Lawrence told Hawkins.  
“My goal is to do what’s best for the town,” Hawkins said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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