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Ferrisburgh board, workers at odds with town treasurer

FERRISBURGH — The work of a Ferrisburgh official has come under scrutiny and opened the question of whether the 19th century form of small town government is appropriate to Addison County’s third-largest municipality.
Ferrisburgh town workers have recently told the Ferrisburgh selectboard they are not happy with the performance of Town Treasurer Garrit Smits, alleging that Smits is working too few hours to do his job, leaving his co-workers to perform his work and subjecting the town to late fees.
Smits maintains he is simply taking vacation time owed to him and that in similar situations since being elected in March 2014 he has always covered for his co-workers.
The selectboard dealt with the issue at its Aug. 16 meeting and at a special session on Aug. 23 devoted to Smits’ work. The Aug. 23 meeting included a closed-door session, and the board met with the town attorney on Sept. 2 in a secret session.
Open meeting minutes show town clerk Gloria Warden, assistant clerk and assistant treasurer Pam Cousino, and road foreman John Bull stating that Smits has not worked enough hours in recent months to do his job.
According to Aug. 16 minutes Cousino said she is “falling behind on her duties as assistant town clerk because of the need to take on duties that should be handled by the treasurer,” and “Cousino and Warden are asking the selectboard to help resolve the issue.”
Cousino and Warden allege they have had to take care of receivables; process, prepare, print and answer questions about tax bills; enter accounts payables; prepare warrants for selectboard meetings; mail checks; and help the selectboard set the tax rate. They and Bull said Ferrisburgh has paid fees for not paying bills on time.
No action was taken after the two executive sessions, said Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence. Because Smits is elected, he is not directly answerable to the selectboard, but to town voters, who chose him for the position in a three-way race, with Warden — whose husband, Jim Warden, is a Ferrisburgh selectman — finishing second.
Lawrence said, “The duties and responsibilities of the treasurer are not being performed,” adding that the selectboard hopes to get the town business running smoothly and to work out the issues with Smits.  
“We just want to make sure the town is working in an orderly fashion,” she said. “It’s the hope of the selectboard to move this whole situation forward in a positive manner. And the board is here to help Garrit in any way possible.”
But Smits said the board is the problem.
“I’ve worked for a lot of people in this community,” Smits said. “A lot of people think highly of me. But never the Ferrisburgh selectboard.”
Smits said he took no vacation time during the past fiscal year, which ended in June, and he is taking those 40 hours and his 40 hours from the current year and spreading them around the typically slow summer work weeks.
“I feel I have been using my vacation time strategically to work around the needs of … this office,” Smits said.
Smits said although it is technically not in his job description, he regularly helps out around the office with customer service (“You could look through dog licenses, and I bet you’d find about a third of them I signed off on.”), but when he takes time off the same does not occur.
“When I’m not here and I’m taking my vacation time, you can see in the minutes the outcry,” Smits said.  
Lawrence said she believes the vacation hours alone don’t account for the missed time.
“Since the first of May it’s been probably 15 hours or less (per week),” she said.
HISTORY
Smits said his difficulties with the selectboard predate his working for the town. In 2013, he said he twice applied for a treasurer position advertised publicly in the Independent, both times being the only Ferrisburgh applicant, according to former town clerk and treasurer Chet Hawkins.
“The selectboard ignored my application,” Smits said. “I didn’t get a phone call, a letter or postcard, an email, a phone interview or an in-person interview.”
Lawrence remembered an issue with advertising for the job — the board first advertised for a fulltime treasurer, but learned it could not because it is an elected position.
The board then sparred with Hawkins about whether a fulltime treasurer was needed, taking the position that it was a fulltime job. Eventually the board sided with Hawkins and advertised for a part-time assistant treasurer, but hired no one before March 2014, when Smits was elected.
“There was an issue about legality, and it all just kind of stopped,” Lawrence said.
Smits called it “not a coincidence” the board was not getting along with a treasurer before he came aboard.
When Smits and Warden were both elected in March 2014, the selectboard decided soon after that both should work 40 hours a week, not the 20 hours a week that it had pegged before the election.
“We gave them each 40 hours to learn the job,” Lawrence said.
The board also opted to pay Warden $3 an hour more than Smits — unfairly, in his mind.
“I had experience with accounting and bookkeeping and I had two bachelor’s degrees, one being in accounting. The selectboard refused to pay me $20 an hour,” Smits said.
Lawrence cited his lack of town office experience compared to Warden, who worked for years in Charlotte’s town office.
“She had town government experience, and he had zero, so that’s where I think where we came from,” Lawrence said.
HOURS AND PAY
When working on the 2015-2016 budget, the board began looking at cuts, and on Jan. 26, 2015, decided to slash the treasurer’s job from 40 to 30 hours per week. Smits debated the decision with the board on Jan. 26 and Feb. 3. Warden and Cousino remained at 40 hours per week.
“He actually came to a budget meeting and said the job probably would not take 40 hours,” Lawrence said. “I don’t know if there are minutes to back that up. He did say he thought he could do it in less than 40. That’s why we cut it.”
The Feb. 3, 2015, minutes read: “Board members said they had anticipated having Smits work up to 40 hours per week during the transition from one treasurer to the next, as systems were set up and he learned the ropes, and that he would then work fewer hours. Smits agreed that this was discussed, but thought that 30 hours was not sufficient.”
By then, Smits had already walked away from working Saturday mornings at the Ferrisburgh Post Office after a dispute with the selectboard about taking two hours off from work to help out a postal co-worker who had a medical appointment.
The board decision reduced his hours by 25 percent and pay by about $9,000. Smits, whose hours were boosted to 35 on this July 1, said he became the town’s lowest paid fulltime employee.
“I didn’t feel those hours were reasonable,” Smits said. “And even though they said your pay is being cut and your hours are being cut, there was still the expectation I had to get the job done. And I told them with that much time the job won’t get done. And they said it needs to get done. And there was no compromising or negotiations.”
Smits said he was also stung by the board’s attitude.
“One of them actually asked me, before my hours were cut, ‘What do you do all day, count paper clips?’” he said. “It was really insulting that they think collecting and disbursing $10 million can be done in 20 minutes. Not only am I responsible for collecting taxes, I have to also do accounts receivable, accounts payable, human resources. It’s not stuff that Gloria does. The selectboard does not seem to understand more hours are needed in this office.”
Smits is also upset that he was also the only town worker who did not get a raise in 2015.
“Everyone else got raises that year. Everyone else in town. I was the only one who had to take a cut,” said Smits, leaving him in a situation in which his take-home pay was not enough to make ends meet.
But Lawrence shared Vermont League of Cities and Towns data that showed how his current salary, $33,670, compares with other towns.
Ferrisburgh has 2,767 residents. Berlin, Clarendon, East Montpelier, Hartland and Thetford range in population from 2,594 to 3,387, and their treasurers’ hours and salaries include 28 hours and $29,542 in Berlin, 40 hours and $35,611 in Clarendon, and 35 hours and $41,696 in Thetford.
“We met with him when we told him it was only going to be 30, and then last year he said he needed another five, so we graciously gave him another five, so he’s back up to 35,” Lawrence said, including a full benefit package.
Lawrence said by statute all those treasurer’s jobs are comparable, but acknowledged Smits must perform customer service.
“The expectations would be that the treasurer should make himself available to the public during the operational hours of the clerk’s office,” she said.
However, Smits added another reason the hours are not enough: If he is not there to enter data, he has to spend extra time correcting mistakes — he offered two August examples of something he called “not uncommon,” check amounts wrongly entered that can take 30 minutes to fix.
“When the selectboard cut my hours, I told them that the fewer hours that I am in the office will equal more transactions entered incorrectly, and this can be a huge time-waster,” said Smits.  
MOVING FORWARD
The issue is not easy for the selectboard given the structure of town government.
Ferrisburgh’s elected clerk and treasurer report to the elected selectboard, but board members cannot give them annual reviews or formal oversight.
“We just have to monitor, because we cannot evaluate elected officials,” Lawrence said.
Ferrisburgh, the third-largest town in Addison County, does not have an administrator, unlike Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes, the other three largest communities.
Some Vermont towns, including Panton, have adopted charter changes allowing selectboards to appoint clerks and treasurers. Panton selectboard members have said so far that change has worked well there.
Lawrence said that Ferrisburgh’s selectboard has discussed governance changes, including the Panton and administrator options.
“I’m not sure we have the most efficient structure or system in place,” she said. 
But for now, they are focused on smoothing waters and improving communication.
“We just want to get some resolution and get the town back on track,” Lawrence said.
Meanwhile, Smits believes he has done a lot for Ferrisburgh, including “money-saving contracts I pushed forward, like with Casella or Fairpoint,” and said he will continue to serve its residents.
“Whenever someone is in the office needing help, I’m here to help,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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