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December 05, 2016
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Tusten voters to decide bookkeeper issue

It’s an issue that has centered on trust and control. Some members of the board don’t trust the supervisor to hire a bookkeeper who will serve the best interests of the town. The supervisor, as the elected official who is responsible for the town’s finances, says she needs to have control over the hiring of the bookkeeper so she can hire someone who will cooperate with her.

State law dictates that the supervisor has the authority to hire the bookkeeper, but state law also allows the town to change that law with the approval of the voters so that the board does the hiring. Both sides now will be counting on the residents of the town to see things their way.

At a special meeting of the Tusten Town Board on May 2, the board voted to move forward with the process of adopting a local law that will give the board the authority to hire the bookkeeper.

The bookkeeper’s hours were reduced last fall as part of a prolonged budget process, with the goal of saving the town money by no longer having to pay for benefits for the position. In January, the board voted to eliminate the position, which meant the bookkeeping responsibilities fell to the supervisor.

But the firm that audits the town’s books informed the town that having the supervisor serve as the bookkeeper created a “material weakness” regarding the town’s internal controls.
At the meeting, council member Carol Wingert, who has been the most vocal critic of supervisor Peg Harrison, said it was a “serious” problem. Harrison said it was not a “serious” problem.

What is still not clear is whether the board, if the law is approved by the voters, will re-create the position as a full-time job, thereby raising the cost to the town, and whether the board will re-hire Karen Valenti, the person who held the job until January.

In the discussion running up to the vote, council member Eileen Falk said that it was fine with her when Valenti’s hours were cut to 29 per week to save the town money on benefits, but she did not agree with the further reductions that came later, and with the eventual elimination of her job.

Falk, who has voted with Harrison on the matter in the past, said, “Karen is not a personal friend of mine, but I think she is the most honest person that has ever worked in this town.”

Harrison responded, “I should be able to trust that person; I should have someone I can work with.” Asked if she trusted Valenti, Harrison produced a document that she said had come from the auditing firm and asked that the matter be moved into executive session to “discuss the employment history of a certain individual.”

When the board came out of executive session, they voted three to two to move forward with the law with Falk voting against Harrison.

Harrison said the law will create a situation where the highway superintendent, the code enforcement office and the town judges will all have the ability to hire their own administrative employees, but the supervisor will not.

There will be a public hearing on the matter at the next town meeting on May 9, at 6:45 p.m. at the Tusten Town Hall. The referendum, which will cost the town $600, will be held within the next couple of months, and Harrison will continue to fulfill the responsibilities of bookkeeper until then.