Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton resigned on Friday morning, capping weeks of tension and speculation over whether he would remain on the job. And as the dust settled over the weekend, the mood in town was decidedly bleak amid mounting financial problems and a workforce strained by low morale and uncertainty about the future.
The five Oak Bluffs selectmen met behind closed doors for an hour on Friday and then announced in public that they had accepted Mr. Dutton’s resignation, which is effective July 31.
“As a longtime Oak Bluffs resident, Mr. Dutton has served his community in a number of positions over the years,” said selectman and board chairman Kathy Burton, reading from a prepared statement. “The board extends its best wishes to Michael and his family as he pursues other endeavors.”
Mr. Dutton’s resignation follows a severe reprimand from the state attorney general last month over violations to state public bidding laws. An investigation into the violations is ongoing after an anonymous construction worker wrote to the attorney general last month citing a system of patronage and favoritism in awarding town bids. The town is also facing severe financial problems, including a negative free cash balance approaching $1 million.
Selectmen met in executive session five times over the past few weeks to consider the discipline or dismissal of Mr. Dutton, who served as the town’s chief procurement officer, as well as town accountant after the death of financial director Paul Manzi in October.
On Friday morning Mr. Dutton left town hall shortly before the selectmen convened and was not present at the meeting. He could not be reached in his office on Monday.
In the statement issued Friday, selectmen said Mr. Dutton will continue to work with them over the next several weeks as they search for a replacement. Selectmen said they intend to hire an interim town administrator while they search for a permanent one.
During those discussions selectman Walter Vail said it may be time to revisit the town administrator’s job description.
“Maybe in looking at it you’d look at it with the idea that he has more powers than he should have as the town administrator versus the selectmen,” Mr. Vail said.
Mr. Dutton has signed a separation and release contract. The town will pay him $29,250 in severance pay, and $27,000 in unused vacation time and accrued sick time.
He has served as town administrator since 2006. Before that he served as a town selectman.
After the meeting Friday and again yesterday morning, the mood was somber in town hall among employees and selectmen, who were tight-lipped about their decision. Ms. Burton said on Friday that the decision was “personally difficult.”
Yesterday morning several employees remarked that morale was as low as it had ever been in town hall. Some questioned the public manner in which Mr. Dutton’s departure was handled on Friday morning — selectmen invited town hall employees to attend the announcement — while others registered deep concern about the selectmen’s lack of communication with employees. One employee described the status of the town staff as “skeletal.” The looming prospect of layoffs is common concern among workers.
“It’s the rumors that are really hurting a lot of people,” said Oak Bluffs council on aging director and former longtime selectman Roger Wey. “The selectmen need to sit down with town employees and let them know what they’re thinking. People feel left out of the loop and that’s why morale is so down.”
At the meeting on Friday when Mr. Dutton’s resignation was announced, Mr. Vail, a retired businessman who is new to the job and was elected in April, had a different opinion about morale.
“I think morale is a situation that’s developing as a result of people knowing that we have to make cuts,” he said. “It’s not a morale issue other than that in my view.”
Mike Santoro, a town businessman also newly elected in April, said town employees need to toughen up. “I don’t want to hear we’re shorthanded,” Mr. Santoro said. “Everyone is going to have to step up just like everyone else in this town.”
The town’s financial problems are compounded by the fact that its contract with the accounting service Sullivan and Rogers ran out on June 30, and the books have not yet been closed on fiscal year 2011. Last week Mr. Vail said he had spoken with Gerard Perry of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, who expressed concerns about the town’s financial affairs. Mr. Vail said Mr. Perry recommended that selectmen take $53,000 budgeted for next year’s finance committee reserve fund to pay for accounting services, then repay the committee with an appropriation at a special town meeting in the fall. Mr. Vail said he presented the idea to the town finance committee and got an icy reception.
“I got a response that was not all that exciting: They were objecting 100 per cent,” he said. “The long and short of it is that they want us to be cutting expenses now .”
Mr. Vail said he was able to hammer out a compromise of sorts with the committee.
“They want to know by July 31 what we’re going to do to make some public gesture of good faith regarding cuts in the budget. In return for that we have $10,000 a month from their reserve fund up to $30,000, as long as we will repay it,” he said.
The money would allow the town to retain contracted accounting services until September, at which point the selectmen said they would have to call a special town meeting to provide a more long-term solution. On Thursday the finance committee also complained to Mr. Vail about a sense of alienation from the board and demanded that it be kept abreast of its decisions.
“They really feel like they have been left out for the last two or three years,” Mr. Vail said. “Some of them are so mad.”
Even once the town closes its books on 2011, Mr. Vail said it faces a long battle to regain control of its finances.
“As soon as we can I’d like to compare the revenue numbers that Michael Dutton gave us for 2012 to what was approved for a budget because there is a gap as I see it and I’d like to know how that gap’s going to be closed . . . I think its pretty clear there’s going to have to be more cuts in 2012,” he said.
Assessing the bleak situation in town hall, selectman Greg Coogan was frank.
“No matter what we do we’ll irritate everyone,” he said. “I know where we’re going. The heat will be there.”