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Tusten bookkeeper battle rolls on

By Fritz Mayer
April 13, 2011

The power struggle over who will appoint the town bookkeeper moved into a new phase on April 11, when the board rejected the idea of changing the position from that of a bookkeeper to that of a comptroller.

At the town meeting, town attorney Jeffrey Clemente told the board that such a change would take a lot of power away from the board. He said, “If a comptroller was appointed, the comptroller would solely have the powers of auditing, allowing or rejecting all accounts, charges, claims, demands against the towns or improvement districts, and he or she would be the only one examining, auditing or certifying accounts.”

“And the statute clearly says,” he continued, “that the powers that the board loses shall devolve to the comptroller and the comptroller shall be the town board during the continuance of such office.” He recommended against going forward with the comptroller option and the board agreed.

The bookkeeping position has been the cause of considerable conflict at board meetings since supervisor Peg Harrison moved to cut the bookkeeper’s hours last fall, and make the position part-time, thereby saving the town the cost of employment benefits. However, many residents turned out in support of the bookkeeper, Karen Valenti, and the matter quickly became politically charged.

The board voted to eliminate the position in January, with Harrison taking over the related duties. But the accounting firm that audits the town’s book said it is a “conflict” to have the supervisor fill the roll of bookkeeper.

In the past, the bookkeeper has been appointed with a vote of the board. But Clemente has informed the board that under state law, the supervisor has the sole authority to appoint the position. The position itself, however, must be created by the board. So before Harrison can appoint a new bookkeeper, the board must re-create the position, which so far the board has been unwilling to do.

At the meeting, lawmaker Carol Wingert asked if it would be possible to change the town law to allow the board to appoint the bookkeeper. Clemente said that it would be, but that would require not only a new local law with a public hearing, but also a town-wide referendum, which would be time consuming.

During a discussion of the matter, Wingert and Harrison traded criticisms, with Wingert accusing Harrison of manipulating the votes required to reduce the bookkeeper’s hours and ultimately eliminate the position.

Harrison countered that Valenti had never cooperated with her, and that she needed someone in that role who would work with her.