The Amherst Board of Selectmen have explained in detail this week on why they could not comment during a month-long investigation into a purchase made in October.
Selectman Brad Galinson made a public statement at Monday’s board meeting on why town officials refused to give details while investigators looked into the purchase made by the town last year. The issue attracted much attention after it was revealed that town administrator Jim O’Mara was put on paid administrative leave during this process.
“When the board of selectmen and anyone employed by the town refuses to give information to the public or the press, it is not to be sly; it is not to withhold information. This board would love to disclose anything we possibly can, but responsibility requires us to follow the law and the legal advice of our counsel.”
The investigation performed by New Hampshire law firm Rath, Young and Pignatelli, P.C. focused on the purchase of a $150,000 dump truck for the Amherst DPW during their Oct. 22 meeting, according to the meeting minutes. The department’s old truck was broken down and needed at least $30,000 worth of repairs, according to Galinson.
The board authorized the purchase of the six-wheel dump truck while the five-year lease purchase agreement was being processed. They soon learned that they could not enter the lease agreement because the town has been operating under a default budget, and the truck had already been paid for in full at that point.
Galinson said that the board unanimously voted to put O’Mara on paid administrative leave during a meeting on Dec. 5 to ensure an impartial investigation. He explained that his presence would mean that interviews and activities could not be seen as impartial.
Selectmen announced O’Mara’s return to town hall on Thursday, Jan. 17 after a unanimous decision by the board. The investigation, which focused solely on the dump truck, took longer than expected.
This investigation did not find any wrongdoing on top of the fact that the dump truck should not have been purchased, but the details will still not be released.
“By releasing them, we put the town and board at more risk than the benefit of releasing them,” said Galinson. He assured the public that the cost of the investigation will be released once the bill comes in.
The board has now implemented stricter and more formal procedures on a historically informal process to ensure that a mistake like this will never happen again. Any check will now be physically signed by the treasurer, town administrator and at least three selectmen before leaving town hall.
No further investigation is planned on these “procedural flaws and delayed internal communication protocols.”
“I am content that this issue has been examined under a microscope.” said Chairman Bruce Bowler in a press release on Thursday. “The Board has acted in a responsible manner, and we can move forward with confidence, knowing that the measures put into place last October will prevent this from happening again.”
Some have questioned whether or not $11.5 million in recent financial reconciliations had anything to do with O’Mara’s paid administrative leave. Galinson assured citizens that no money had been misplaced in any way, and that the town’s finance director has been simply logging financial journal entries for the audit.
He mentioned that the previous financial recording was “careless,” but has since been corrected, and the FY12 audit has already begun.
Many citizens have spoken out on the town’s silence regarding these issues over the past month-and-a-half. The Amherst Citizen’s Association has been leading the effort to learn more about the investigation, and were not happy with the secrecy surrounding it.
“I am very pleased to see Jim O'Mara back at work and I know that sentiment is shared by many other Amherst residents and by other members of the Amherst Citizens Association,” said ACA spokesperson Mark Vincent on Friday, after hearing the news of O’Mara’s return to town hall on Thursday. “This entire episode has cast doubt on the integrity of the management processes in place at Town Hall.”
Selectman George Infanti said that although the board could not make any comments, the citizens have a right to ask questions and scrutinize the government’s actions.