Former committee member alleges misuse of funds and other wrongdoing

Above: The proposed design for a new one-story police station

From yesterday’s Metrowest Daily News:

A former committee member is accusing her colleagues of colluding to ensure the town would build a new police station rather than fully explore renovation options, actions she said deceived town residents.

Nancy Vargas, a former member of the Municipal Facilities Committee, filed a complaint Dec. 3 with the state attorney general’s office alleging that town officials misused funds and violated the state Open Meeting Law while the committee was involved with the schematic design phase for improvements to the police station.

Vargas, who was appointed to the committee in 2008 and remained a member until it was dissolved in June 2010, claims that a “custom” of violations had developed on the committee between 2006 and 2009, including misrepresentation of a Town Meeting warrant article and collusion among members of the board, town staff and a selectman.

You can read the full story here. After reading, feel free to come back here and talk about it.

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John Butler
11 years ago

I cannot provide any information about the inner workings of that Committee or its relationship to the Selectmen. I suspect people were working hard in what they thought was the best interests of the Town, about which reasonable people can disagree.

I can say, however, that there is a correct claim in the MetroWest story that Advisory Committee agreed to support funding for the ongoing work of the Committee, at one point, only after extracting a promise that the work would include analysis of maintenance or renovation of the police station, not just new construction. This promise was given reluctantly, as I recall.

Many of us on Advisory suspected that the very expensive projects being considered were not going to be implemented, and we wanted to be sure we got something of practical value for at least some of the planning money. It seemed that the Selectmen and the Municipal Facilities Committee disagreed with us about the likely outcomes.

Asking for and receiving that promise did not have the desired effect, however. So far as I can tell, the promise was forgotten. In round numbers the Municipal Facilities Committee, with involvement of the then Selectmen, wasted between $300 and $450 thousand dollars on plans that are not going to be implemented. Very little maintenance or renovation planning was done except later under the auspices of the Historical Commission.

The outcome of this mismanagement is that we are now maintaining the building, as we should be, and making plans for that maintenance only with such funds as are available for all maintenance of Town buildings.

The larger lesson for us in this is that our Town management structure is broken, and has been for some time. We need to get the Board of Selectmen out of the job of day to day management, and into an oversight role, and we need to have a professional Town Manager accountable to that Board. This is the structure that all Towns around us have adopted and that our Town Government Study Committee recommended. Implementing this will not eliminate all mistakes. That is impossible. But, it will help.

Donna McDaniel
11 years ago

Notice, too, that to the right of the screen next to the article in the News, you can download the full report (in three parts) for yourself. The article makes more sense when you take a look at least some of the multitude of details and accompanying documents for yourself.

wow
11 years ago

Is this the same Municipal Finance Committee that spent over $90,000 on the preliminary design of a new police station as described in the July 2, 2010 blog post titled “Committee recommends against new police station design”?

From that blog post: “The multi-year effort culminated in a design for a new one-story building that would replace the existing police station. But members of the Municipal Facilities Committee told selectmen on Tuesday night they don’t think that design will actually meet the town’s needs.”

With all due respect to those concerned about $2,500 on a sign at the Triangle Park (I’m one of the concerned), if this is the way our town government operates, we have much more to be concerned about.

How much has been spent on consultants evaluating the Art Center building, Fayville Hall, the senior center, the police department, etc.? Did we get what we paid for from those efforts, or did they have similar results to the MFC that couldn’t endorse their own design?

After reading the first two files with Ms. Vargas’ complaint, it’s unclear to me if the problem is the current structure or the people within that structure. Yes, Mr. Butler, perhaps there is a better structure but how much can things really change with the same people running that new structure?

Have we as a people forgotten that commitment and competence are not one in the same, and that effort alone does not guarantee excellence, or even suitable results sometimes?

Kudos to Ms. Vargas for taking the time to document her experience. Hopefully it will lead to positive changes at a minimal cost to the town.

Yes, it’s easy to stand on the outside and ask questions. I struggle with the question of whether it’s better to remain silent, or write this. Given the picture painted in Ms. Vargas’ complaint of how these committees work, please don’t suggest that I should volunteer for a committee. Many thanks to those who do, but I lack the patience for that game.

Thank you Mr. Rooney for standing up and taking on what you have. One small step forward for Southborough – hopefully to be followed by more.

Who's in Charge?
11 years ago
Reply to  wow

So, the prior Chairman of Municipal Facilities, who resigned from that committee amid allegations of mismanagement of town funds, has been appointed to the Advisory Committee to oversee town finances? Did the Selectmen think to give Town Moderator a heads up before the appointment? Or is this just another example of “sweep it under the rug, business as usual”? Where is the accountability from our elected leaders? Reading the complaint, it seems fault doesn’t end at the Selectmen’s door – The elected Planning Board doesn’t seem to have control over their employee either. Is anyone looking into the many issues raised in the complaint? How much money was spent on the Master Plan? No minutes were taken? Doesn’t that invalidate the whole document? How could it have been overlooked on such an important and expensive endeavor? The town should undertake an independent investigation into all the issues raised in the complaint. Unfortunately, our elected officials don’t seem up to the task.

John Butler
11 years ago

The reader who signs as “wow” raises some points that should be discussed.

Yes, we have seen pervasive mismanagement here in Town, and yes kudos to Ms. Vargas for documenting and calling attention to problems.

The main question raised, and that with a despairing tone, is whether the problem is the with structure or with the people who are volunteering. The answer, I believe, is that with the our structure, and our current size, no group of Selectmen could succeed, at least not for long. Furthermore, the two problems are interrelated. If we fix the structure, and make the Selectmen’s job into a reasonable one again, more people may be willing to volunteer to serve. Lastly, we as citizens cannot mandate who will volunteer, but the broken structure is within our control. If we don’t fix it, we have only ourselves to blame.

The Town Government Study Committee report recommends a Town Manager, and a five person Board of Selectmen that functions in a policy and oversight role rather than as direct management. The charter that created that committee did not give it responsibility for implementation, and it has not yet been implemented.

There is an article on the April Town Meeting warrant this year that will create a committee to draft the actual language to make the recommended change. The warrant article was placed by the signature of about 30 citizens including the signatures of all of the current Selectmen, 8 of the 9 current Advisory Committee members, two former Selectmen and the former Town Administrator. The entire implementation process will require two votes of Town Meeting and about two years to complete. There is no faster way.

Per your request, “wow”, I won’t ask you to volunteer for a committee, but I will ask you to attend Town Meeting this year and next year and vote to fix the broken system we have. This change will not prevent errors, no structure can promise that, but the structure we have is guaranteed to create them.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

Wow

We have a serious problem but I think you are being a bit unfair to the Facilities Committee. The are all volunteers. There has been a general recognition that the Police Station Facility needs to be addressed. Town Meeting allocated the committee a sum of money to explore the options. The reality is that these volunteers needed the services of a professional with experience in the area to help them figure out what was practical and possible. This costs money. To their credit the called a stop to the process rather than spend all the money available when they had doubts about the site and facility. (The reality is that we cant afford it for a few years until we work off some of our heavy debt load)

That being said, your larger point about the shambles is our facilities plan is real, We have an old, expensive to operate, under maintained set of municipal buildings. Public construction rules make building public facilities vastly more expensive than comparable private ones.

Like you I think we have spent a significant part of the CPA funds and other monies very poorly. The Triangle and Arts Center Windows are prime examples. But we have only ourselves to blame. There is a perfectly honorable segment of town that believes in the trans-formative power of government and is willing to raise taxes for expanded government facilities and services. I respectfully disagree but to date I and others like me are a distinct minority at Town Meeting where all our spending is authorized. Until Town Meeting starts voting down these types of programs down they will continue.

While I agree with John Butlers proposal to move to a Town Manager form of government, I think will have only a modest impact on the issues you address.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

wow
11 years ago

Al,
Let’s call a spade a spade. We gave the MFC over $90,000 to oversee what I understand to be the completion of a preliminary design for the new police department building (included in that funding appears to be an alternative plan to renovate the existing building that was never delivered). The MFC for whatever reasons collectively failed to meet that objective regardless of their efforts and good intentions. Despite this outcome, I’m sure there were good people on that committee that did their best, some of whom I may be proud to have as neighbors.

Yes, it’s great that ultimately the committee did not endorse a plan that did not meet the needs of the police department – a small success if you will in a failed mission that cost us more than $90,000.

Perhaps I’ve unfairly characterized the mandate the committee was given. If that’s the case, my apologies.

John,
I will be at town meeting and absent a compelling argument against your proposal, will support it in 2011 and 2012.

All,
I hope we can appreciate the difference between fighting over pennies in the big scheme of what’s going on here v. the dollars we don’t see because we’re too caught up fighting over the pennies.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

I guess I have a slightly different take on the situation. Like Ms Vargas over they years I have made freedom of information requests and have found instances where the Open Meeting laws were being flaunted. I have sometimes spoken quietly about this and sometimes loudly complained here and in other forums.

On one instance, I seriously considered going to the AG but reconsidered. For better and worse a lot of work in town government is done be volunteers, who by the way are also our neighbors. Even those who get a stipend are really working for almost nothing. Even if these volunteers made mistakes I have a hard time dragging them through the mud of an AG investigation. It certainly will have a chilling effect on getting others to volunteer.

I don’t have a problem with the facilities committee or Mr. Boland (who I often disagree with) having an agenda. That is politics pure and simple. The Historic Commission also had an agenda. A significant part of this melee is a contest between the Historical Commission (Think Arts Center Windows) who from the onset were opposed to demolishing the police station and the Building Committee who clearly favored demolition and a new build.

So my take is that this is more about a struggle where the Historical Commission or at least one of its members is trying to get their way than the it is about merits of the issue.

The sad fact is that this is much ado about nothing, we cannot afford either program for the next 3+ years and this action can only have a chilling effect on anyone who is considering volunteering to serve their community. In the end it will only serve to concentrate power in the hands of the few who remain.

John Butler
11 years ago

I want to be clear that I agree with Al about not blaming those who do volunteer. That is why I said in my first message, “people were working hard in what they thought was the best interests of the Town, about which reasonable people can disagree” and why when reader “wow” raised the question of “is it the people” I said I think it is the structure.

Now as for whether the benefits of fixing the structure will have more than a “modest impact”, no one can say for sure. What we can say for sure, is that there have been problems and the structure is broken. After we fix the structure, there will still be issues that arise and mistakes made, because that is inevitable in all managements, public and private.

In short, lets not engage in blame. The Town studied the problem and produced a fine set of recommendations. It’s time to get on with making the necessary changes.

Who's in Charge?
11 years ago

Al – Much ado about nothing?
Southborough is dependent on our hard working volunteers who are under appreciated and deserve much more credit than they ever receive. But at least give them the respect of letting them know that everyone will be held to the same standards and exceptions will not be made for the few. Not addressing serious misconduct when it occurs has a negative impact to all volunteers. Being a volunteer does not give you a free pass from the state law that specifically addresses the requirements of being a volunteer on a town committee.
The issues in the complaint reach much further than a squabble on one committee – it describes numerous infractions and acceptance from town officials of misconduct from not only appointed volunteers, but an elected official, town employee and consultants.
Given the extent of the documented violations it is hard to believe that this conduct isn’t a regularly occurring problem throughout town. Who is in charge of our town employees? Seems there has been a complete lack of oversight and they are given free reign to impose their preferences in complete disregard to town meeting votes and are willing to disregard state law if it suits them.
Having a group of renegade volunteers and town officials operating without respect to town and state law and with disrespect to other committee members and other town entities is what will have a chilling effect on anyone who is considering volunteering to serve their community.

wow
11 years ago

Couple of somewhat random thoughts:

1. I don’t know how we can find a solution if we don’t understand the problem. For those of us outside the day to day machinations of town government, Ms. Vargas has provided a fascinating window into how things appear to function.

2. Why would the most able amongst us (I’ve excluded myself from that pool of talent) volunteer for a committee if that committee is perceived to be set up to rubber stamp what others have already decided?

3. This community has a vast pool of extremely able individuals with relevant experience that can help us with the challenges we face. How do we engage them in that effort and convince them that what they bring to the table will be appreciated? See the bottom of page 93/top of page 94 (first download file) for a rather upsetting account of how one volunteer’s effort to do the right thing (in her view) were received by our elected official.

4. I’m indifferent (currently) as to whether we build a new building or keep the old. My issue is that at TM we funded a project (evaluation of both options) when there appears to have been no intent to give both options a fair chance.

5. With limited space at the current FD/PD location, I’m surprised (may have missed it) that a combined facility for both has not been considered. Other towns have done this (Lincoln, MA for one).

6. In my view, it is only through failure and learning from that failure, which requires acknowledging it, can we find success.

7. Have those responsible for the project shared with us what they would do differently so that the next effort might result in a better use of the funds allocated to it. I’m not holding my breath for that – but what a statement it would make. “We failed. We learned. Here’s how we can do better the next time.”

8. Again – I know its easy stand outside of the process and ask questions and I respect and appreciate the efforts of those who have committed their time to our town. My concern is how we create an environment that facilitates success instead of the alternative.

Al Hamilton
11 years ago

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”

My comments re “much ado about nothing” related to the fact that this entire squabble is over a building we are not going to build because we cannot afford it. We are struggling to find the money to pay police officers, firefighters and teachers and will for the next few years as we pay off the heavy burden of school and other debt we are carrying. The entire adventure is moot.

I have not delved into the specifics but a few items should come to light:

1. About a year and a half ago the State tightened up the open meeting requirements to make sure there were published agendas and recorded minutes as well as tightened conflict of interest requirements. Sounds good right. Those volunteering for committees do not typically receive any administrative support from the town. The volunteers are responsible posting agendas and keeping minutes, reviewing them and then filing them with the Clerk. Needless to say, the opportunity to be a bureaucrat is a real enticement to community service. Everybody looks at their shoes when it comes time to elect a committee secretary. But those are the rules well intentioned as they might be I think they are a real disincentive to service.

2. The municipal facilities committee consisted of 5 people. It is a common misconception that the open meeting laws forbid discussion of public affairs by members outside of a public meeting. It does not. If forbids substantial discussions on policy matters under the control of the board among and between a quorum of members outside of a formal meeting. If for example 2 members engaged in a discussion of matters before the committee in private that would be perfectly permitted provided they did not then try to discuss the same matters with others on the committee. They would also be free to discuss committee matters with 3rd parties such as a Selectmen and I would expect that a Selectman might well want to make their views known to a member or all the members. In fact there is nothing to prevent anyone who is not on the committee from lobbying all the members. Further I believe that discussions and meetings with employees are not covered.

Am I happy about how this whole adventure turned out. No, the Municipal Facilities Committee and the Historic Commission both wasted a lot of money planning for buildings we cannot afford. Hindsight suggests that we should have first asked the question of whether we could afford to do anything more than the absolute minimum before we proceeded but we did not.

But I am going to stand up for the members of the Facilities Committee. Yes they had an agenda. Every board and committee member has an agenda that is often the reason people volunteer. Did they cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s, I doubt it but I am willing to bet that almost no committee in town does elected or not. Frankly the rules sound good but are unworkable in my opinion. Further, the proper sanction for an elected official in this matter is at the ballot box. Ultimately I think the committee quit in disgust and I think we are the poorer for it. The problems that they were tasked to address remain and I doubt anyone will want to touch this toxic mess in the future.

“No good deed goes unpunished”

John Butler
11 years ago

It is unfortunately true that a risk of volunteering is that, even with good intent, mistakes may be made, or events may unfold in a way, such that one becomes subject, in hindsight, to public criticism. Hard as that is, it is better that that criticism occurs, that problems are aired publicly, then that well intentioned volunteers are protected by avoiding public discussion. (Unfortunately, by the way, the amount of money that came to nothing was closer to $350,000 than $100,000.)

In this situation, however, a remedy is not going to emerge from personal attacks. We must think about how to avoid this situation and similar incidents of mismanagement in the future. That is the practical course forward.

I have highlighted one suggestion, which is to implement the recommendations of the Town Government Study Committee. This first step will come before our next Town Meeting.

I have another suggestion. The vast majority of emails and documents generated by volunteer boards, and by Town employees, are, legally, public documents. Under the law the public is entitled to request them and have them provided. In addition, essentially all of this information originates in electronic form and is stored on Town email and file servers, or could be. I think that the Town should modify its computer systems so that all of these documents, emails and files are on the web as soon as they are created, and therefore are indexed by Google and other search engines. Information that is legitimately confidential under State law would be excluded from such publication.

Advisory Committee has been experimenting with this approach for several years. Essentially all documents in process and all emails are copied to our web site (www.southboroughadvisory.com) where they are instantly available to all the members and the public. This system works well. Few members of the public use the information, but some do. However, the main point is that it is completely open. Members and those communicating with the Committee are habituated to the notion that everything is instantly public.

The problems documented by Ms. Vargas would be largely eliminated if all legally public emails had been instantly actually public. Furthermore, although, people can always engage in surreptitious behavior, the more that such requires conscious circumvention of the established systems, the more those systems make it clear what the right behavior is.

The operating costs of such a publication system would be zero, but there would be some modest cost associated with setting up the systems. There would be subsequent cost savings associated with lowering the costs of complying with public records requests, whose costs are not fully defrayed today. I think we should seek private grants to defray the costs of the systems conversion, justified by our pioneering a completely open government.

Mary Hynes
11 years ago

Dear Who’s in Charge?

In your early posting in this thread, you commented about the Town’s Master Plan and the “validity” of the document due to various concerns of yours. As chair of the Master Plan Committee (who was not involved with the Municipal Facilities Committee), I wish to assure you that minutes of Master Plan meetings were always taken and continuously made available to the public. As far as your question about cost, I believe the Master Plan cost $65,000. Also, all the various chapters were posted on the Town website for review and comment, and the entire document was accepted by Town Meeting upon its completion. Each of our numerous work sessions over many months was posted and open to the public, and we also had several public workshops as well as a public hearing once the draft was finished. We encouraged comments and discussion throughout what I believe was an open and transparent process.

Mary Hynes
11 years ago

John Butler offered a correction on my previous post. My recollection was that it was presented to Town Meeting, and it appears that I used the term “acceptance” incorrectly. There was not a vote of approval. John pointed out that reports from the master plan committee were made to Town Meeting, but that is very different. I did not mean to suggest that the Master Plan was put to a vote at Town Meeting.

I do remain convinced that there was a concerted effort to conduct an open public process and publicize and thoroughly report on working meetings and draft chapter elements and findings.

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