Ferrisburgh officials again unhappy with town treasurer

FERRISBURGH — Long-simmering tensions between the Ferrisburgh selectboard and elected Town Treasurer Garrit Smits surfaced again recently, when board members canceled Smits’ town credit card after a dispute over whether he should have raised its spending limits.
Town auditors as well as board members in the past six weeks have also criticized Smits’ performance, citing late payments and an inadequate work schedule, and private auditing firm RHR Smith & Co. cited “deficiencies as it pertains the town’s fiscal best practices with the treasury of the town.” 
Smits, who said he wrote the town’s 2014 credit card policy “from scratch” and noted town auditors called it “a respectable document,” maintained he had the authority to raise the credit card limit.
Smits said in an email to the Independent he increased the limit to meet an important goal of that policy — to save money and time, specifically to streamline and speed up regular stationary purchases by placing online orders with the U.S. Postal Service. He said he is getting his job done and the selectboard is singling him out for criticism.
“There was no wrongdoing on my part, but they wanted it canceled anyway,” Smits said of the credit card. “No fraud, no abuse, no shady purchases.”
In addition, he wrote in a letter to the selectboard, there were no secrets involved.
“Statements are always available for review and all payments and supporting documents have been reviewed by the selectboard prior to payment,” Smits wrote.
The May 2014 credit card policy, which applies to cards held by Smits and by Road Foreman John Bull, contains one apparent contradiction. At one point it places a $1,000 limit on purchases, the limit that Smits exceeded, but it also states elsewhere, “The town treasurer has the authority to refuse the issuance of any card, make changes for existing cardholders, and to cancel, at any time and without notice to the cardholder, any previously issued cards.”
Selectboard Chairwoman Loretta Lawrence concedes board members were “not even aware of the clause until the debate started regarding the credit card,” but were were upset to learn only from town auditors that the limit had been exceeded.  
“The board has always assumed that the original card limits were still the same as when originally approved on May 20, 2014,” Lawrence wrote in an email. “Yes, Garrit has the authority to make changes.  However, it was expected that he would contact the board and have a discussion as to why he felt he needed to increase the limits. It would have showed clarity and transparency. Sadly, this did not happen.”
As for the late payments, Smits blames Bull.
“Bills are not paid late because of me,” Smits wrote. “Bills are paid late because John does not turn them in on time to pay them on time.”
Lawrence said not all of Ferrisburgh’s late payments and resulting fees are related to the highway department.
“The board has noticed, just since last April, that the town had to pay the IRS a late penalty of approximately $628 for filing payroll taxes late. In the past year, we have had to pay the state of Vermont late penalty fees for filing the state payroll taxes late. The state penalties have accrued up to several hundred dollars,” she said. “It is sloppy bookkeeping.”
Minutes show a board unhappy with Smits. For example, on Jan. 3 Selectman Steve Gutowski, according to draft minutes, said, “although some late payments were caused by the logistics of the approval process, late fees and charges (were) incurred from inadequate job performance by the town treasurer.” Those minutes also state, “bank account reconciliation was behind, and deposits of public monies were made well beyond a reasonable time frame.”
At that meeting, the board also reviewed a draft of a new credit card policy that could be adopted next Tuesday.
Lawrence, who insists she likes Smits, also cited the thorny issue of Smits’ hours. She said she believes Bull provides bills in a timely manner.   
“The bills pile up each week and are not dealt with until the afternoon of the board meeting. He comes in on the afternoon, before each board meeting to prepare the bills to be approved for that evening’s board meeting,” Lawrence said. “This situation happens due to the fact that Garrit does not spend time at the office. He is not getting the job done.”
As an elected official, Smits sets his own hours and answers to voters, not the selectboard. The board cannot order him to work specific hours, but sets his pay at $33,670, expecting a 35-hour workweek.  
Town Auditors Walter Reed and Deborah Healy came to December board meetings and addressed Smits’ performance.    
According to Dec. 6 minutes, Reed said he has “noticed that other people in the office were doing so much of the treasurer’s work. Walter stated that he did not think it was fair that the assistant treasurer (Pam Cousino) had to continually have to do her job and much of the treasurer’s job. He stated that the treasurer is rarely in the office during operational hours.”
Lawrence said selectboard members agree.
“We stop by and notice it, too,” Lawrence said. “The work isn’t getting done. And I still believe Pam especially is trying to do her job and his job, and then it affects the whole office. We have no problem with him setting his own hours, but he needs to be available to the public.”
In his Monday email, Smits said he could answer questions about his hours and late bills, but did not have time.
“I can talk to you more about this point (late payments) and your other point about my hours, but I have other engagements,” Smits wrote.
A request for further information was not answered before deadline. In an Independent article published in September, Smits defended his schedule and his performance, citing “money-saving contracts I pushed forward, like with Casella or Fairpoint,” and said he has served town residents well.
“Whenever someone is in the office needing help, I’m here to help,” he said.
Smits also said then the selectboard, which since he was elected in March 2014 cut his hours from 40 to 30 and then restored five hours, has never respected him.
“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.”
The Ferrisburgh selectboard will probably not endlessly spar with the town’s treasurer. The board first looked into a charter change to make the town’s clerk and treasurer appointed positions, a path other towns around the state, including Panton, have chosen.
But the board discovered Ferrisburgh has no charter, and has begun taking steps to create one calling for appointed posts. According to Dec. 20 board minutes, “the board is moving forward with this matter; it will be a long process that can not begin before the Vermont Legislature is in session, and will involve the town’s attorney, the (Vermont) League of Cities & Towns, local officials, and others.”
The board has already contacted its attorney, local legislators and the VLCT to learn more about the process. Lawrence said board members want to move toward appointed officials, a change that among other things would broaden the talent pool as well as create a chain of command, but said residents would make the final decision.
“We want to incorporate into an appointed treasurer and town clerk. But that would be a vote by the townspeople,” she said.
In the meantime, Smits’ two-year term expires in March.
“All people should participate in town government that would like to,” Lawrence said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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