AYER - Treasurer Stephanie Gintner and Assistant Treasurer Melisa Doig came loaded for bear Tuesday night when taking a seat before the Ayer Board of Selectmen. Each had their attorney in tow.
Doig's attorney took center stage, arguing that the selectmen should maintain 'supervision' over Doig while his client pursues her 'hostile work environment' claim against Gintner.
Meanwhile Gintner's attorney was prevented from speaking to the board in the multi-month struggle between the elected Board of Selectmen and the elected Treasurer.
On Tuesday, the selectmen voted 3-to-1 with one abstention to maintain selectmen-appointed Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand as Doig's 'supervisor'. Gintner's attorney Daniel Gelb said it's a "completely inappropriate" arrangement that arose following the selectmen's "unilateral action" of Dec. 15. At that time, the selectmen 2-1 vote with two members absent during a closed-door session to shift 'supervision'-only of Doig to Pontbriand.
At the selectmen's June 5 meeting, Gintner read Gelb's June 4 letter aloud, promising legal action if the selectmen appropriated the Treasurer's budget to fund a retooled job for Doig. That night, the selectmen voted 3-2 with no debate to advance Doig's reclassification request to the Personnel Board. To proceed with that vote, the board also voted 3-2 without debate to revert from a 2003- to a 1999-reclassification policy that permits the selectmen, and not Gintner as Doig's "Appointing
Gintner maintains there's no need for a full time Human Resources Director post, which Doig requested. The Town Meeting-approved Fiscal Year 2013 budget does not include funding for such a post, which does not presently exist in Ayer town government.
Gelb asserted that Gintner would "not permit a paycheck to be drawn from monies allocated to the Treasurer in order to pay an employee that is not managed by the Treasurer's Department." Gintner pledged "judicial intervention" if the funds were funneled from her office.
Selectman Chairman Jim Fay responded, reading from prepared comments. Fay maintained that the selectmen are charged with oversight of "the financial operations of all departments in the Town of Ayer." Under his leadership, Fay said the board "has no intention of acting in contravention to established laws, policies and procedures accepted by the Town of Ayer."
Fay said Gintner was making "false assumptions" and said Gintner's warning was "in my opinion, unwarranted and without merit."
Nicosia asked for Pontbriand's supervision of Doig to extend through April 2013 when Gintner's present 3-year elected term expires. But the board went further, voting 3-1 with one abstention to extend Pontbriand's oversight of Doig for the next year, through June 30, 2013.
The attorneys papered the board with their competing legal arguments earlier in the day. Gelb argued that Doig was now engaged "in professional tasks beyond the scope of her current employment" leaving Gintner with "no ability to control the duties being performed by her subordinate." Gintner and Doig are the only employees in the Treasurer's Department.
Without providing a "specific basis for continuing the supervision of the Assistant Treasurer," Gelb wrote "it can only be inferred that certain members of the BOS are intent on undermining Treasurer Gintner's professional reputation and integrity as well as her ability to serve the public interest."
Doig's attorney, Peter Nicosia argued "taxpayers' needs" were being "adequately serviced with this shift in administrative oversight. There is no reason why this should not continue."
Citing state law, Nicosia said a Treasurer may appoint an Assistant Treasurer only "with the approval of the selectmen" with pay flowing "from the city or town" via the expense Warrant signed by the selectmen with added financial oversight provided by the Town Accountant.
"The Town Treasurer has absolutely no authority to unilaterally disallow the Assistant Town Treasurer's payroll check as she has threatened at the last public meeting," wrote Nicosia.
Fay contended there was "no discussion needed" before the board's vote. "This is a done deal," said Fay before setting a 5-10 minute limit for debate by the board.
Instead of having town counsel present, Fay said he'd spoken with attorney David Jenkins who assured him "we have the legal grounds" to maintain oversight of Doig. "We're not going to pay legal fees where we don't have to."
"I'm not going to accept not being able to discuss it tonight," said selectman Pauline Conley. "I came fully expecting to discuss this because that's what the chairman said we'd do tonight."
"Go ahead," responded Fay.
Before voting against the ongoing supervision of Doig, Conley expressed dismay that Jenkins wasn't present for the lawyer-heavy meeting. "I did say that he said we're on good legal ground to do so," said Fay.
"That's not what he's said in prior meetings," answered Conley. Conley pressed Fay to reveal what he and Nicosia discussed one-on-one in Doig's office on a prior date.
"That's a private conversation," said Fay. Nicosia added the talk had "nothing to do with the subject matter."
Conley asked Nicosia to "elaborate" on how taxpayer needs have been served by the shifted supervision. Nicosia said his client has made "substantive complaints" against Gintner, revealing Doig has been subject to a "hostile work environment."
Nicosia said he'd asked Pontbriand "point blank" if taxpayers were better off and said Pontbriand "affirmatively answered." Nicosia said his client is also pleased with the "remedial measure."
Nicosia alleged the selectmen have a "statutory duty" to address Doig's complaints and to "perpetuate that remedy." Any less would "return my client to what we consider to be a hostile work environment."
"Your town counsel agrees with my analysis," said Nicosia.
While "you have a law degree which I do not have," Conley said she did not agree with Nicosia's "interpretation" of the law "but I haven't gotten to page 2 yet." Conley added that, in lieu of Jenkins' presence, she wanted at least town counsel's written opinion to back Nicosia's claim.
"I appreciate that," answered Nicosia.
Conley said Pontbriand's sole supervisory function has been to sign Doig's timesheet. However, when calling in on a recent sick day, Doig communicated her intended absence to both Pontbriand and Gintner.
Since Doig and Gintner work side-by-side on all Treasurer Department functions, "I fail to understand how that creates a hostile work environment," said Conley.
Nicosia responded by producing a Sept. 4, 2011 email thread between Doig and Conley that he said suggested that Conley knew of Doig's difficulties in working aside Gintner.
In the email, Conley suggested Doig send Gintner a memo, and provided draft language for Doig's consideration:
"In light of recent circumstances that have occurred in the Treasurer's Office, I respectfully request that all communications from you to me be in writing or, if oral, in the presence of a third part who will serve as a witness," wrote Conley.
Nicosia said the email was evidence that Conley knew of the degree of discord between Doig and Gintner. "I find it somewhat hypocritical to what you in your own words have espoused" said Nicosia to Conley.
"I wrote this email in response to Melissa's request," answered Conley. "That is in response to talks with Melisa with regard to what we can do. She just couldn't' work with Ms. Gintner."
But Conley pressed on - what oversight does Pontbriand provide beyond signing Doig's timesheet? Daily responsibilities, tasks, and job requests "are still communicated from the Treasurer to the Assistant Treasurer," said Conley. "They don't go through Mr. Pontbriand."
Nicosia suggested Conley ask Pontbriand. Conley responded that she had done just that "three hours ago." Pontbriand's input was not sought to settle the mini-debate.
Selectman Frank Maxant said "When we made this shift, I saw it as opportunity for a cooling-off period." Maxant said Conley's email was not evidence of a hostile work environment, but was a "very good example of the Board of Selectmen's proper role" early on in the dispute in "seeing how we can help smooth out this situation."
Maxant ultimately abstained from the final vote, but not before turning on the majority, claiming the selectmen's oversight of Doig has served to "fuel the fire. They encouraged more and more acrimony between these two people." Maxant said it was a clear effort to "try to grab some power for this board."
Fay said the Gintner/Doig situation was "irretrievably broken" but was "repaired" with the switch to Pontbriand's oversight. Selectmen Gary Luca and Christopher Hillman did not weigh in on the discussion. Nor did the two deliberate openly on the June 5 votes.
"I'd like to call the vote on the matter," said Fay.
"I'd like to hear Mr. Gelb," said Conley. Gelb signaled that he wished to speak but was not permitted to do so. Before leaving the table, Gelb asked for the record to reflect that his client "objects vehemently" to how the matter was handled, stating that by silencing him, Gintner was "essentially legally muzzled" by the board.
Follow Mary E. Arata at Twitter.com/maryearata and Facebook.com/mary.arata.