The town of Oak Bluffs has at least 10 employees working under personal service contracts, multiple year employment agreements negotiated on an individual basis that usually reward the worker with additional perks and a higher level of pay than other municipal and union employees.

Often negotiated out of the public eye, personal service contracts are usually reserved for select town employees, including town administrators, police chiefs, fire chiefs and finance directors. State law allows for these contracts, but guidelines suggest that they be limited to the four positions described above. The contracts allow towns to entice and retain qualified candidates for key positions in an often competitive employment market. But state law seeks to limit the number of such contracts because each town or city's annual budget and salary appropriations are made on an annual basis.

In Oak Bluffs there are far more personal service contracts than in any town on the Vineyard, and possibly in the state, the Gazette has learned.

The Oak Bluffs town administrator, police chief, fire chief and finance director all have personal service contracts. But so do the principal assessor, the town accountant, the harbor master, the wastewater superintendent, the highway superintendent and the police lieutenant.

All the contracts were negotiated by town administrator Casey Sharpe, who was hired in September of 2002 and abruptly resigned from her post last month. She is expected to end her tenure with the town on July 15.

The practice of offering service contracts to so many municipal employees is uncommon - if not unprecedented - both on Island and across the state. Edgartown and Tisbury have service contracts for the town administrator and police chief, West Tisbury has one for the police chief only, and Aquinnah has one for their police chief and administrator to the board of selectmen. Chilmark has no personal service contracts.

David Withrow, finance director for the town of Orleans, said his town has four employees with personal service contracts; the same positions mentioned in state law: police chief, fire chief, town administrator and finance director. A fire captain and a police lieutenant have memorandums of understanding which stipulate that they are paid approximately the same as the union employees in their respective departments.

This week the Gazette collected copies of 10 of the town's current personal service contracts from town clerk Deborah deBettencourt Ratcliffe. All but one of the contracts run for multiple years, and seven of the 10 are three-year agreements that automatically renew for two more years, unless the town or employee gives written notice to terminate.

A closer look at the contracts shows the distinction between an individually negotiated personal service contract and one negotiated by a collective bargaining unit or the town personnel committee. For example, town finance director Paul Manzi has a contract that pays him a base salary of $50,000 a year for a part-time position of 20 hours a week. Mr. Manzi commutes to his job from the mainland. His contract stipulates, among other things, that he be physically present at town hall for an average of eight days a month. Under the contract, the town pays 100 per cent of Mr. Manzi's health insurance premiums and he is entitled to the same cost of living salary adjustments granted to full-time nonunion town employees. A separate section of his contract allows for Mr. Manzi to be paid a stipend of $140 for every day he works on the Vineyard, plus a nightly lodging allowance of $65. The nightly lodging allowance increases to $120 when Mr. Manzi is accompanied by his family.

All these provisions add up to a possible annual salary of over $75,000 for a part-time position.

Ms. Sharpe's contract, signed by former selectman and board chairman Richard Combra Sr. in April of 2004, included a $12,000 annual housing stipend, plus a one-time payment of $4,000 that amounted to a signing bonus of sorts - "as a further inducement to employee to accept these contract terms," the contract states. The contract also awarded her 25 days of accrued vacation leave and 15 days of accrued sick leave in addition to her normal number of vacation and sick days.

A number of the contracts, including Ms. Sharpe's, are similar in appearance and contain identical legal language. The authorizing agent for all 10 contracts is the board of selectmen, although the signatories vary. Two are signed by all five selectmen and six were signed only by Mr. Combra, the former chairman. One was signed by former selectman Todd Rebello when he was chairman of the board, and one was signed by selectman Gregory Coogan, who was vice chairman of the board.

Questions have surfaced lately over whether the chairman or the entire board should sign off on such contracts. At the regular Oak Bluffs selectman's meeting Tuesday, the board unanimously agreed to adopt a policy requiring all five selectmen to sign personal service contracts in the future. The policy was introduced by Roger Wey, and was approved with little discussion.

Mr. Wey and Mimi Davisson, a member of the town personnel board, recently requested copies of all town personal service contracts. As a result, ten of the town's personal service contracts are now on file at the town clerk's office.

Mr. Wey said he requested the contracts in an attempt to bring more openness to town government.

"I'm not trying to point any fingers here, or expose how much somebody makes. I am only trying to allow people to learn more about how their own government works. People have a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent," he said.

Kerry Scott is another selectman who has called for a closer look at the contracts.

"In government, everyone has to be treated fairly. I worry these contracts are creating an environment of haves and have-nots. While I certainly don't want anyone to be hurt by taking a closer look at these contracts, if they are written in a way that is not enforceable, then we need to find a way to fix that," Ms. Scott said.

She said she became concerned after the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury water commissioners signed five-year contracts with their superintendent and administrator to jointly manage both town water supplies. At the time, Tisbury officials raised questions about the legality of multi-year contracts that are not funded through town meeting appropriation.

The Tisbury selectmen are still exploring the issue.

"I have no reason to think anything illegal has taken place," Ms. Scott said, adding: "But I am concerned that these types of contracts have been used in the past as an employment tool."

Ms. Davisson echoed her remarks. "We haven't even discussed anything like that [that the contracts may be illegal]. We are only interested in learning more about the contracts - how they work, how they are negotiated - and that is all," she said.

Peter O. Bettencourt, former long-time town administrator in Edgartown, said he could not comment on the specifics of the personal service contracts in Oak Bluffs. But in his experience, he said it was uncommon for a town to offer personal service contracts to as many as 10 employees.

"Generally speaking, it's not good policy to have a lot of these types of contracts. It seems the [Massachusetts General Laws] are fairly specific about what positions are allowed to have these contracts," Mr. Bettencourt said.

Lydia Hill, a spokesman for the division of local services of the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, said personal service contracts should be for specific positions: town administrator, police chief, fire chief and town accountant or finance director. But she also said there is no law against using such contracts for other positions.

"Generally speaking, the rules governing employment are stipulated in each town's personnel bylaws, that includes things like salary charts, pay grades, terms of employment. Personal service contracts usually cannot supersede personnel bylaw, unless stipulated in those bylaws or in the town charter, or in the Massachusetts General Laws. But every town is different," Ms. Hill said.

Ms. Hill also said the number of contracts in Oak Bluffs seems unusually high.

"In my experience, all I can say that it is very uncommon for some of these positions to have [personal service] contracts. It's not something you see every day," she said.