Trouble in the Westport treasury

Rare public discipline hearing leads to suspension: Lawyer calls her a scapegoat

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 9/12/19

WESTPORT — Town officials said Assistant Town Treasurer Mary Sullivan did not do the work she was paid and trained to do, but her lawyer described her as a “scapegoat” for deeper problems in …

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Trouble in the Westport treasury

Rare public discipline hearing leads to suspension: Lawyer calls her a scapegoat

Posted

WESTPORT — Town officials said Assistant Town Treasurer Mary Sullivan did not do the work she was paid and trained to do, but her lawyer described her as a “scapegoat” for deeper problems in the treasurer’s department.

After a highly unusual open session public employee discipline hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 4, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously that Ms. Sullivan be suspended five days without pay. The motion also requires Town Administrator Tim King to enter into a new performance improvement plan with Ms. Sullivan that includes additional training.

Ms. Sullivan, who was already out on paid administrative leave for “certain failures in her performance,” appeared before selectmen with her attorney, Philip N. Beauregard. Seated behind here some Town Hall employees, several of whom would speak on her behalf.

Before public proceedings began, the board twice went into closed session with Ms. Sullivan, once to discuss possible settlement terms. When no agreement was reached, the public hearing she had requested began.

Town Counsel David Jenkins described what he said were thoroughly documented “failures in performance that had extended over a long period of time.” He said the accusations involved nothing criminal or immoral.

As assistant treasurer, the “two most crucial duties” for which she was hired, Mr. Jenkins said, were maintaining the town ‘cash book,’ and handling the monthly reconciliation (assuring that all town bank accounts were accurate and up to date.

He also said that, in her resume that she provided when hired in 2017, she claimed to have “strong knowledge” of Microsoft Excel, Word and Outlook.

“It’s no secret for me to say that the treasurer’s office in town had problems, pretty severe,” Mr. Jenkins said, and “certainly Ms. Sullivan is not the cause of those problems.”

Mr. Jenkins said that when problems were discovered in that office, Eric Kinsherf, CPA/consultant was brought in to straighten things out. Among other things, he prescribed and arranged training for both Treasurer Brad Brightman and Ms. Sullivan.

At a long series of meetings, he said, “it was repeatedly emphasized to Ms. Sullivan that the cash book had to be maintained on a daily basis.

But, “from December, 2018, through April, 2019, Ms. Sullivan did nothing with the cash books … failed to make entries as instructed.” Members of a treasurer’s office review board were “astonished” that after six months of training and dozens of meetings, the work was not getting done.

In one email, a consultant described and spreadsheet she had created as “un-useable. I have no idea what she did to arrive at this.”

“All of this shows,” Mr. Jenkins said, “that Ms. Sullivan is a good person, she is easy to get along with and has many friends in TownHall but after substantial efforts to train, supervise and instruct, Ms. Sullivan is just not able, for whatever reasons, to handle these two major functions of her position.”

Karen Raus of the town Finance Committee said she believe that Mr. Kinsherf had clearly assigned tasks and that these were regularly discussed with Ms. Sullivan at meetings. He said that Mr. Kinsherf said he had been trying to train the assistant treasurer but she does not have the Excel skills to manage the cash book.

Mr. Beauregard, however, argued that Ms. Sullivan Ms. Sullivan’s skills and background were known to those who hired her but that she was thrust into a bad situation — “difficulties that had arisen from the fact that the elected treasurer (Brad Brightman) was not able to to perform all of the duties of a town treasurer.” She was forced, he said, to “play catch up” and do work beyond that for which she was hired.

“There is nothing short of the meaning of the word scapegoat at this point,” Mr. Beauregard said.

Her job description mentioned “assisting the town treasurer, not running the town treasurer’s office but assisting the town treasurer. Not filling in the gaps of what should be expected of the town treasurer because of whatever problems were created by electing instead of appointing one, and the scrutiny that I would assume this board would make in the future when appointing a town treasurer instead of electing one.”

Mr. Beauregard produced an e-mail that he said Ms. Sullivan had written to Town Administrator Tim King in February of 2018 in which she expressed concern about the cash books not being updated. “Brad has asked me to update all of these accounts,” by “backing-in” data, the e-mail stated. “Complying with that request” would compromise the integrity of the documents and my reputation.

“Mary is absolutely willing to continue and take whatever training is needed,” he added.

Mr. Beauregard called several audience members to the microphone.

Town Clerk Marline Samson said that Ms. Sullivan was “enthusiastic” when she started but later confided in me “that she was very concerned about the cash books and reconciliation s that were not done before she got here.

“She wanted the training,m she wanted to do the job, unfortunately the treasurer was able to help her because Brad did not know the job.”

Former Town Clerk Carol Borden said that Ms. Sullivan also confided with her “about the work that was going on in there, or wasn’t going on in there.. I think that with the proper training, Mary will do an excellent job.”

Ms. Sullivan said she is now confident that she has the ability to do a job that she admitted has “been overwhelming at times … Yes, I need additional training,” she added, but the cash book was perfect when I left in August.

She said that cash book responsibility was initially unclear — went back and forth between her and Mr. Brightman.

Not so, Ms. Raus replied.

“In regards to the cash book, that task was tasked to Mary right at the onset … and it has never changed. That has always been her responsibility.”

Selectmen’s decision

Board Chairwoman Shana Shufelt said selectmen had several options:

• No action, in which case Ms. Sullivan’s could return from administrative leave and resume work as usual.

• Continue the hearing to give all on the board the opportunity to read the lengthy backup material presented by Mr. KJenkins (an option she supported).

• Consider disciplinary action of some sort, ranging from something minor to termination.

“After the thousands and thousand of dollars we spent on Eric the consultant doing all of the training, we are hearing that there should be more training,” selectman Steven Ouellette said. “We offered those options before to Mary. What are we saying is missing now because we had one of the best CPAs round helping this department out?”

“I don’t think anything is missing,” Town Administrator Tim King replied.

“You have had training from January through August,” Mr. Jenkins said. “I think the town’s position would be that we’ve provided as much training as we can.”

“I think we did everything we could,” Mr. Ouellette continued — training, quiet space, don’t answer the phones … “When we appoint another treasurer, we need someone in there with their feet on the ground, ready to get going before we run into a mess. We are paying extra money now for a consultant.”

The notes of the oversight committee and consultants “are very detailed and you can see frustration building over time, lots of frustration,” Ms. Shufelt said. My biggest concern is that if we don’t take some sort of action, it will just continue, not improve.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.