Contrary to what was announced publicly at the time, former Oak Bluffs town administrator Casey Sharpe did not resign three months ago, but was terminated without cause by the selectmen - at her own request - triggering a clause in her contract that paid her more than $76,000 in salary and benefits.
Ms. Sharpe was terminated by the selectmen in an executive session on May 9. Following the executive session the selectmen met in public and announced that Ms. Sharpe would resign, effective in July. At the time selectmen and audience members offered words of praise for Ms. Sharpe, who had served as town administrator since 2002, and the meeting ended with a round of applause.
But the feel-good tone of the farewell apparently directly contradicted the mood of the tense closed-door session that preceded the regular meeting. And the decision to terminate Ms. Sharpe came, strangely, at her own request, several selectmen confirmed this week.
A clause in Ms. Sharpe's contract stipulated that the board would pay her a lump sum cash payment equivalent to six months' salary if she was terminated without cause - as well as benefits and deferred compensation, all accumulated sick leave, vacation and other benefits accrued at the time of dismissal.
In a letter written to current town administrator Michael Dutton late last month and obtained by the Gazette this week, labor attorney Michael C. Gilman of Gilman & Associates calculated that Ms. Sharpe is owed $45,427 for six months' salary and $31,449 in unused sick days, for a total payout of $76,876. The money has already been paid to Ms. Sharpe, Mr. Dutton said this week.
The amount does not include the cost of Ms. Sharpe's medical benefits and an $1,000-a-month housing allowance in her contract, bringing her total package to over $85,000.
Although the selectmen unanimously agreed to terminate Ms. Sharpe without cause, several board members this week said they were unaware of the financial implications of their action at the time.
Selectman Kerry Scott said she tried to ask questions during the executive session, but answers were hard to come by. She described the session as tense and emotional and "very orchestrated."
"I tried to start a dialogue, but in the end there was no discussion about what terminating [Ms. Sharpe] without cause really meant. I think the board voted on this without any thought about its impact on the taxpayers," Ms. Scott said.
Selectman Roger Wey also said he had no idea of the financial repercussions of the board's decision. He said it bothered him for weeks after the meeting, and he requested information about how much the town would pay Ms. Sharpe.
When he found out the amount was over $75,000, he said he was shocked.
"Here we are talking about openness in town government, and then we have a situation where nobody knows one of our former employees - who basically resigned - has received all this public money," Mr. Wey said.
Board chairman Duncan Ross said this week that Ms. Sharpe had in fact asked the board to terminate her without cause, but said he was unable to go into any more detail. He said technically selectmen took two actions during that executive session: they accepted Ms. Sharpe's resignation, while also agreeing to terminate her without cause.
Minutes of the executive session have not been publicly released yet.
Mr. Ross said he was aware of what it would cost to terminate Ms. Sharpe, but he suggested that the selectmen's action may actually save the town money in the long run. He said Ms. Sharpe was prepared to pursue legal action against the town if the board refused to dismiss her, although he did not elaborate.
"In the face of the possibility of legal action, we agreed to dismiss her without cause. I can't say any more than that," he said.
Mr. Dutton, who is now the town administrator but was a selectman in May and participated in the executive session, concurred with Mr. Ross that the threat of a lawsuit played a part in the decision to agree to Ms. Sharpe's request, and terminate her. Immediately after Ms. Sharpe's resignation was announced, Mr. Dutton resigned as a selectman in order to apply for the job.
Ms. Sharpe, who has no listed telephone number, could not be reached for comment this week.
Selectman Ron DiOrio, who was elected last month to fill the seat left empty by Mr. Dutton, compared Ms. Sharpe's financial package to the golden parachutes awarded to employees of large corporations. The main difference is that those companies can afford large severance packages, while a small town like Oak Bluffs cannot, Mr. DiOrio said.
He also questioned why Ms. Sharpe's contract allows her to collect over $30,000 in unused sick days. He said special perks like those, largely unavailable to other employees, creates a culture of resentment among town employees.
"It's human nature to question why some people get special treatment and others don't. It's not healthy for the town to have such a disparity between so many employees," Mr. DiOrio said.
Mr. DiOrio said the issue highlights the troubling matter of the way personal service contracts are handled in town.
Personal service contracts have been the subject of some discussion in Oak Bluffs since it was revealed early this summer that the town has at least 12 employees working under multiple-year employment agreements. The contracts are negotiated on an individual basis, and usually reward the worker with additional perks and a higher level of pay than other municipal and union employees.
In Oak Bluffs there are far more personal service contracts than in any other town on the Vineyard, and possibly in the state.
The contracts often award perks normally not found in other municipal and union contracts. Ms. Sharpe's contract, for example, included the $1,000-per-month housing allowance and a one-time payment of $4,000 as an inducement for her to remain with the town.
Ms. Scott said the town has already taken steps to be more diligent about awarding personal service contracts in the future. Selectmen recently adopted a policy requiring signatures from all five selectmen to approve a contract. They also agreed to meet with the personnel board before signing off on any contracts.
"We need everything to be as clear as possible. People have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent," Ms. Scott said.