Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
Twenty-three days after interviewing the three finalists forwarded by the Town Administrator Screening Committee (SC), a two-member Fairhaven Selectboard interviewed Interim Town Administrator and Finance Director/Treasurer/Collector Wendy Graves on 3/11. Board member Keith Silvia had to recuse himself due to a conflict of interest because his wife is the Council on Aging Director and reports to the TA (see page 3). Selectboard Chairperson Daniel Freitas, and board member Bob Espindola interviewed Ms. Graves, along with the town’s hiring consultant, Bernard Lynch from Paradigm Associates.
Ms. Graves, who participated by Zoom, said she wanted the TA position because it is the “natural progression” of advancement.
“It’s the only place to move up. There’s nothing higher than my position other than town administrator, and I do love Fairhaven,” said Ms. Graves. “I love working here and I love the working for the people, for those reasons.”
Ms. Graves’s resume reflects a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with a concentration in accounting/finance/information technology from Nichols College in Dudley, MA. She received a certificate in local government leadership and management in the Suffolk University program in 2020, and a certificate from the Supervisory Leadership Development Program from the Mass. Municipal Personnel Association in 2017. She is certified as a Mass. municipal collector and a Mass. Municipal treasurer.
Mr. Lynch noted that Millbury changed its town charter to make the treasurer appointed rather than elected at the end of Ms. Graves’s term in 2002. He pointed out that Millbury underwent a Department of Revenue (DOR) financial management review, which reflected “cash reconciliation problems” in 2002, 2003, “and perhaps before that,” said Mr. Lynch. “It seemed to have been going on for some time.”
Ms. Graves said that might have taken place after she left.
“You left in 2002, I think?” asked Mr. Lynch.
Ms. Graves also worked as the full-time treasurer/assistant collector for the Town of Princeton from 2002-2001. During that time, Ms. Graves said she was asked to assist the Town of Medway with its cash reconciliation, but as Mr. Lynch underlined, Ms. Graves’s three years holding of multiple positions in Medway was not on her resume.
“As you know, Medway was on the brink of receivership … in 2005 while you were there,” said Mr. Lynch, adding that a DOR report reflected deficit concerns.
Ms. Graves said in Medway she went from reconciling cash to an appointment of assistant treasurer/collector. She described interpersonal problems between a new town accountant and an assistant accountant, so Ms. Graves was asked to “trade spots” while those differences were resolved. When the town accountant was fired, Ms. Graves was appointed to the position, although she said she was not experienced in municipal accounting at that time, and two different accountants had been in that office within a short period of time.
“It was a mess and I could never really get it cleaned up,” she said .
The TA then left and when the treasurer left, the town appointed someone with no experience. She resigned from that position soon after because the new TA told her she could not take a vacation that she had planned with her terminally ill mother.
“And a report came out … later on and said certain things,” said Ms. Graves. “I couldn’t really tell you what it was, no one ever approached me and said anything about it.”
“You were interviewed in that report,” said Mr. Lynch. “According to the report.”
Ms. Graves said she was, but the report came out after she left.
Mr. Lynch said Ms. Graves was in Medway for 2.5 years, and because it was a statutory position, it was concerning that it was left off her resume. Selectboard member Bob Espindola pointed out it was also left off her resume in 2013 when she applied for Fairhaven treasurer/collector.
Ms. Graves said she had “a lot of things” left off her resume that she said could be found in her accounting-specific resume, and added, “It wasn’t anything that I was trying to hide.”
“It’s not just an in-and-out months-long thing,” said Mr. Lynch, “So that’s why it raised some concerns as to why it was missing … given the concerns of Medway in 2005. They were well-known around the state for the financial problems that they were having. The issue with the reporting of the deficits was a concern as well.”
Mr. Lynch then turned to Ms. Grave’s position as treasurer/collector for Taunton from January 2011 to April 2013 and asked her to explain the circumstances leading to her resignation and that city’s $2 million deficit in free cash at the close of FY12, which was noted in another DOR report.
Ms. Graves said there was a borrowing shortage on a school project. She said the town accountant was using a new system and creating Excel spreadsheets and that “you couldn’t really find it on the computer.”
She blamed the accountant for the unfortunate events, saying, “I feel like she should’ve, like, let me know, seeing I was new, that things was going on, so, you know, for that reason.”
She said the Taunton job “was never a really good fit” and she did not have “full rein.”
Mr. Lynch asked Ms. Graves to describe her leadership and management style and how she would motivate employees.
“I’m not a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ kind of person,” she said. “I treat everybody equally, into team building, and…”
“How do you do that?” asked Mr. Lynch.
“Basically, it’s the communication and letting them know what you expect of them,” she said.
Mr. Espindola asked about implementing the Selectboard’s goals and policy objectives, work which Mr. Espindola said Mr. Rees would consider “second only to his budget decisions.”
Mr. Espindola added that, this year, the town is behind schedule and asked Ms. Graves how she would expect to gain the experience she needed to catch up.
Before she could answer, Mr. Freitas interjected: “I thought that you had said that we have to stick with questions we had asked every other candidate. I don’t recall you asking this question to any of the other candidates.”
Mr. Espindola said he had said he would ask the same categories of questions.
“No, you told us specifically, you even told us to …go back and look at the meetings…”
“Are you in favor of asking the exact same questions that she’s had three weeks to prepare for?” asked Mr. Espindola, and he repeated “same categories” several times as Mr. Freitas argued the point until he said, “Ask your question, Bob.”
Ms. Graves responded: “OK, so, although I wasn’t involved in that, we did have team meetings that we brought up what our goals were and Mark worked those into it.”
She added she would take what she learned from Mr. Rees and other TAs, “but I will be my own person.”
Mr. Espindola referred to a recent work environment climate study at Town Hall and asked if there were specific actions Ms. Graves had taken since appointed as interim TA and if she believed it was an important measure to address immediately.
She said it was and that there were two trainings in early April on leadership and communication, that Mr. Espindola said staff was apparently unaware of. He asked if she had addressed the staff since her appointment.
Individually, she said, but not as a whole, and not yet with every employee. She also said she had not yet held a meeting with department heads, saying she has been too busy to schedule one. As permanent TA, she would hold monthly meetings, but now she was already busy with budget season and working between 53-63 hours per week.
Mr. Freitas intercepted to have Ms. Graves explain why she has been working up to 63 hours a week, saying, “So the people at home know, so it doesn’t seem like you’re just avoiding this.”
She noted she was working in Human Resources, and, with more prompting from Mr. Freitas, noted she was also the treasurer/ collector/finance director (which is one position in Fairhaven), and the acting TA.
“So, that would lead to you not having a lot of time to be doing a few things right now until the position was — either you got the position or somebody else, correct?” said Mr. Freitas.
“Yes,” she said.
Mr. Espindola pointed out that Mr. Freitas and Mr. Silvia “made a conscious decision” to appoint Ms. Graves instead of an outside person.
Mr. Lynch noted that a TA generally does work 50-60 hours a week and said, “That’s what you’re looking to sign onto, so…”
On several occasions, Mr. Freitas interjected to explain what he believed Mr. Espindola was trying to ask Ms. Graves, especially about the budget process, and forecasting numbers.
Ms. Graves said her financial policies include keeping 3–5% of the budget in free cash reserves.
Regarding other post-employment benefits (OPEB), Ms. Graves said she thinks the town has $42 million in OPEB liability. When asked when it would be paid off, she replied, “2028?”
“Really? Okay,” Mr. Lynch said.
“2032?” said Ms. Graves. “I don’t know, it’s far out there.”
Ms. Graves admitted she did not have experience in several areas, including grant writing, collective bargaining, economic development, and interaction with several government agencies.
Mr. Lynch asked about the largest capital project Ms. Graves had ever overseen.
“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any,” she responded.
Mr. Lynch emphasized the significance of a human resources department saying, “That’s where all the risk and liability exposure is.” He asked her for her thoughts on the future HR Department in Fairhaven, which has no Director.
“I would still like to wait a little bit more time and see, because we have two new people,” she said, adding that she had not decided on restoring a full-time position or keeping them part-time.
Mr. Espindola asked whether Ms. Graves or anyone in the HR Department now has any training in HR. Ms. Graves said as treasurer she gained experience in benefits, but as far as the other aspects of HR — recruitment, training, health and safety, labor and employee relations, she said, “If I didn’t know the answer or what to do, I would do the research behind it. I would call people. I would call who I had to, you know, research it before I do anything.”
She said she still has a “manual” from the Suffolk University program. She has gone through the grievance process before but never as the final decisionmaker.
“Selectmen are the final decisionmaker,” she said, but Mr. Espindola questioned the accuracy of that assumption related to the town’s TA Act.
Mr. Lynch referred to the Suffolk program and its emphasis on municipal best practice trends. He asked her which one is the most interesting to her as a potential TA.
She paused, and said, “I don’t know,” and chuckled.
Ms. Graves also said she would not be in favor of a DOR financial management study because the town is in good financial shape and there are too many new employees, who would have difficulty helping with the study.
“Don’t you think this would be the perfect time to have the DLS come in and do that report while everyone’s new before they’re trained on bad practices?” asked Mr. Lynch.
Ms. Graves said she likes to think that during annual audits, DOR would point out any existing bad practices.
Mr. Freitas restated his opposition to a DOR report, which Mr. Espindola has been pushing for months.
What ensued was a stalemate.
Mr. Espindola motioned to appoint Jennifer Callahan, the current Oxford TA, as he did on 2/16, when she was interviewed with the two other finalists chosen by the SC. Mr. Freitas did not second that motion, but made his own to appoint Ms. Graves. Mr. Espindola did not second that motion, so both motions died.
Mr. Espindola asked Mr. Freitas to reconsider and respect the SC process that yielded the three finalists. Mr. Freitas was self-appointed to that committee, and he said since the process ended, he has learned further information about another finalist that he did not like.
When pressed for details, he suggested Mr. Espindola Google it. He also complained that Ms. Graves was asked far more in-depth questions than prior candidates.
“I think that anybody that watched that thinks that that was a good interview,” said Mr. Freitas. “She’s been with the town for years. She’s had an excellent work history. I don’t know anybody that could watch that and say that she didn’t do a good job answering the questions — they were different questions than … the other people — which I thought was great — something she couldn’t have looked on TV and waited for.”
Mr. Freitas wanted to adjourn but Mr Espindola would not make that motion.
“We owe an answer to the community on what happens next,” said Mr. Espindola.
“I don’t know,” said Mr. Freitas, adding that he wanted to wait until Mr. Silvia could ascertain whether he might be able to vote.
“Town counsel answered that question for us today,” said Mr. Espindola, “saying that that is not the case, even in a stalemate he cannot.”
Mr. Freitas could not be persuaded to appoint one of the original candidates, but he mentioned that he would have been in favor of Ari Sky, who withdrew to take the another position during the three weeks Mr. Freitas delayed a final vote in order to interview Ms. Graves.
“You’re acting as if I won’t come off my motion and I’m screwing up the process,” said Mr. Freitas. “Come off your motion and see if we can come between something. Would you be willing?”
“I said ‘yes,’ I’m willing to appoint Ms. Callahan,” said Mr. Espindola.
“You did, and I said ‘no,’ and you said come off to another one,” said Mr. Freitas. “Make a motion for another one.”
“The strongest candidate is the one I mentioned,” said Mr. Espindola.
“So, you want me to change to a different candidate but you can’t — don’t have to change to a different candidate. Bob you’re a — Bob, we’re moving on because I’m not playing — I’m not going to entertain you anymore tonight,” said Mr. Freitas.
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