Report prompts policy revisions
HANSON — The Board of Selectmen, Tuesday, Oct. 18, voted to accept all but one of Labor Counsel Leo J. Peloquin’s four recommendations for resolving issues with the management of Camp Kiwanee.
The board voted 4-0-1, with Selectman Don Howard abstaining, to go ahead with the hiring of a recreation director as funded by the Oct. 3 special Town Meeting, to require Selectmen and the town administrator to set rental rates and to require the commission to seek approval of discounted rates from the town administrator and a vote of Selectmen. The policies and procedures will be updated to reflect the votes.
They stopped short of requiring those who received past discounts to make up the difference.
“I’ve looked at the evidence,” said Selectmen Chairman James McGahan. “I think what we’re seeing here is evidence to support the claims that protocol is not being followed. I also see evidence here of poor record-keeping. It’s very clear.”
In a 31-page report to Selectmen, Peloquin of Collins, Loughran & Peloquin in Norwell concluded the Recreation Commission and senior caretaker “have often ignored the Board [of Selectmen]’s authority” and showed evidence of possible ethics violations in awarding rental contracts at Camp Kiwanee over the past six years.
“It’s a records-driven report,” Peloquin said during the meeting, repeating his assertion in the report that the conclusion might have changed had more witnesses cooperated.
Commissioners and Senior Caretaker James Flanagan refuted the report’s claims and will have until Nov. 30 to file corrections with Peloquin’s office.
“If someone has a [canceled] check for payment that we just missed for a payment, that’s one thing,” Peloquin said. “But when someone has some other correction that begs some question, and they haven’t answered the question before, you have to understand we’ve got to reserve the right to ask the question.”
He said corroborated challenges received by Nov. 30 could be reflected in an addendum to the report.
“After an initial reading of this report and noting the ‘evidence,’ we feel it is inflammatory, inaccurate, misleading, exaggerated, biased and offensive,” Sheila Morse read from a prepared statement by commission members in seeking 30 days to respond.
McGahan conceded some of the challenges — including an instance in which two contracts exist for the same event [see related story] — are worth looking into. He also advocates more security at the camp to protect the town.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Flanagan said after the meeting about the board’s action. “I’m a little disappointed that my name was mentioned so may times all over the newspapers. It kind of tarnished my name and the 10 years I did [work] up there. … I’m disappointed I’m not working there. I love the place.”
Flanagan resigned July 18 after problems scheduling an interview with investigators to work within the constraints of his full-time job as a second investigation stemming from an early July wedding arose.
“I find this report offensive and slanderous,” Flanagan had read from a statement during the meeting. “This report embellishes my job titles …. four different job titles that do not even exist in town bylaws. My job title was the same for nine years — part-time assistant caretaker.”
Peloquin’s report dated Oct. 7 — supported by 276 pages of rental agreements, spreadsheets and contracts — recommended that the town “needs a professional administrator to oversee Camp Kiwanee, including the management of Recreation Commission employees,” and that the town administrator should review all vendor contracts he has not signed to “determine whether to sign them, end them or renegotiate them.”
It also urged town officials to pursue fees owed from those who made personal use of Camp Kiwanee, at free or reduced rates, while serving on the commission or while working at the camp.
Peloquin indicated more cooperation with the investigation might have changed the outcome, and put the cost to the town for that lack of cooperation at more than $27,000.
“A lack of cooperation by key members of the Recreation Commission and all commission-appointed employees obstructed and delayed the completion of the investigation, not only increasing its cost, but also depriving the investigator of critical information.” Peloquin stated, adding, “Information withheld from the investigation may have resulted in different findings and conclusions.”
Peloquin charged that Recreation Commission members, employees, relatives or others connected to the Commission rented Camp Kiwanee for reduced rates — or paid nothing at all — on at least 50 occasions between 2010-16. The report charged that a program that allowed volunteers to transfer hours worked into “Kiwanee Cash,” which, “besides violating its own ‘no bartering’ policy … had clear ethics law implications.”
The report also singled out actions by former Commission Chairman David Blauss, commissioners Susan Lonergan and Flanagan as presenting ethical issues. Hickey’s actions centered on a refusal to cooperate with the investigation, while Blauss, Lonergan and Flanagan were singled out for improper use of the Camp.
Blauss reportedy allowed his cousin, Tom Tobin, to stay for free at Camp Kiwanee cottage, which is supposed to rent for $100 per night, and arranged for his sister, Debbie Blauss, to contract with the commission to hold yoga classes in the lodge even after she stopped paying the 20 percent commission other vendors pay to conduct classes at the venues. Debbie Blauss was also permitted to post a sign at the base of Camp Kiwanee Road.
“How many times this happened cannot be determined, but Blauss himself admitted that he was doing it and believed it was acceptable because Tobin was serving as caretaker for Camp Kiwannee,” Peloquin reported about the cottage use.
Flanagan and Lonergan allegedly used the lodge on “several” occasions since 2010 without paying rent or paying a reduced rate, and the report charges Flanagan with improperly approving discounts for other users. Administrative Assistant Nicole Campbell and former Commissioner Maria McClellan — who cooperated in the investigation — also used or allowed relatives to use Needles Lodge free of charge.
Campbell, who had a contentious relationship with the commission before the investigation, dating back to the 2015 Hanson Day event when a group complained she had cut short its performance. An executive session during a commission meeting led to her filing an Open Meeting Law (OML) violation complaint because she had not received advance notice and asked that the commission be disbanded, the report said. That complaint was upheld to the extent that the commission was ordered not to do it again and to watch an educational video on the OML. A second OML complaint she filed on whether she could use her personal tape recorder during meetings was resolved before it went to a decision.
The Commissioners also complained about Campbell’s job performance.
“Although neither side behaved appropriately, there was no illegal retaliation against Nicole Campbell, directly or indirectly, but he commissioners or commission employees because she fully cooperated with the investigation from the outset,” Peloquin also stated. Interim Town Administrator Richard LaCamera had warned potential witnesses against retaliation on March 24, 2016.
Recreation commissioners Raymond, Francis O’Kane and Janet Agius also fully cooperated with the investigation, as did former department administrative assistants Annemarie Bouzan and Stacey Reed, according to the report.
Under a law accepted by Hanson Town Meeting in 2001, Selectmen set Camp Kiwanee rental rates. Use of the lodge may be donated, specifically, to Scout troops for weekly meeting between September and May, town budgeted departments for meetings with Recreation Commission approval and for town departments to hold one free event from Tuesday through Thursday in a calendar year.
Bartering to cover rental fees is not permitted.
Peloquin said there are no longer records from the Kiwanee Cash program, administered by McClellan, and outlined how Town Administrator René Read ordered that practice to cease when he first learned of it in 2012. Town Administrator Ron San Angelo had also taken action to halt free use of the Camp cottage.
Selectman Bruce Young also pointed out that former Town Administrator Michael Finglas had “given his blessing” to the Kiwanee Cash program when it was first established.
A ‘costly lesson’ being learned
By Tracy F. Seelye, Express editor
HANSON — Unsigned rental contracts at Camp Kiwanee, which were at the center of concerns covered in Labor Counsel Leo J. Peloquin’s report to Selectmen regarding the Recreation Commission, can’t happen again, the board has warned.
“I can’t stress enough that our contracts have to be signed,” Selectmen Chairman James McGahan said after former commissioner Wes Blauss and his wife Joanne outlined repeated inconsistencies with approved contracts his mother Edna Howland obtained for the family’s annual Christmas party at Needles Lodge. “They have to be stamped with payment — all that. We have to be consistent with how this is done.”
All but two of the Howland contracts were not stamped and none were signed as the form required. Town Administrator Michael McCue said he has already begun to make those changes and has also revised the contract form to adhere to new policies and protocols — and to adhere to state ethics requirements.
“I’m already up there two to three times a week to review contracts,” McCue said. “I am signing them. We have revamped the whole contract.”
The Howland contracts provided a microcosm of the overall problem of a lack of adherence to protocol, Selectmen said of the decision to waive pursuit of funds lost to past questionable discounts.
“This has been a costly lesson for us, but I think it’s something that we needed to do in order to figure out what we need to fix,” McGahan said of the board’s decision.
“With everything that’s gone on, we don’t need to go after money,” Selectman Bill Scott said. “It’s a shame that we got to the point where we had to spend so much money to get to where we are. Hopefully, we can move forward as a result of this.”
The Blauss’ presentation featured enlarged copies of six of Howland’s contracts to rent the lodge over the years.
“This is data-driven from your report,” Joanne Blauss said.
“My mother’s name is mentioned more than a dozen times in this report,” Wes Blauss said, noting he represented her because of her poor health. “Edna Howland has no idea that she is named in this report — that she is in any way involved in this. … No one will say anything to Edna about this.”
Howland owed the town more than $1,000 because of discounts improperly approved for her, according to the report.
“Edna would never question. … Whatever she was told is what she paid,” he said.
There is a space for renters to sign the contracts, but neither Howland or anyone else did so, and all quoted a charge of $250 or $350 with no balance due, until a duplicate of the sixth contract was discovered for the party planned in 2015.
They contain four different dates on each form, and the contract they said is a duplicate includes hand-written amount of $110 owed after Howland’s sister, Maria McClellan had been told nothing was owed when she tried to pay the balance owed on a charge of $360. The original quoted a price of $250.
“I brought the original contract back to Mr. [interim Town Administrator Richard] LaCamera,” David Blauss said. “And you wonder why I did not cooperate with Mr. LaCamera? I brought that original one that said $250, that it was paid in full and, obviously, he never even shared it with town counsel.”
McGahan stressed that Peloquin’s point was that the Recreation Commission never approved the discounted price of $250.
Contracts for 2012 and 2013 were duplicates of each other, down to the date at the top of the contract, with a hand-written change of the date of the 2012 party — which originally read Dec. 15, 2011 and was altered to “Dec. 15, 2012.” The parties are always on a Saturday.
“As we sit here today, Edna Howland paid $250, she owes $110, but she doesn’t really, because someone told her $250 was OK,” Peloquin said, noting the commission voted to bill her.
“The bill was never sent out, and I want to make a point that Recreation Commission does not send out bills,” commissioner Susan Lonergan said.
McClellan said the family had taken the duplicate contract issue directly to LaCamera because they were aware of a conflict of interest, and that the Commission never knew about it.
“Probably 40 percent of the contracts [the report] refers to are not signed,” she said. “Therefore, they’re not contracts, they’re pieces of paper. They should be thrown out and not discussed.”
While he did not agree that the contracts should, or could, be discarded, McGahan agreed that, “This has got to be the worst case of record-keeping I have ever seen.”
The Blauss’ asserted that administrative assistants, and Annemarie Bouzan in particular, were not likely to be coerced by former Commission Chairman David Blauss or Senior Caretaker James Flanagan to approve improper contracts. They are seeking legal advice on the legality of the duplicate contracts.
“I have never in my life, told the administrative assistants what to charge anyone,” David Blauss said.
Wes Blauss said David Blauss, Flanagan, McCellan and Lonergan were “in a very vulnerable position” in the report because they stepped in to keep Camp Kiwanee operating with no support from Town Hall or the union when administrative assistants were out on extended sick or family leave time.
Resident Audrey Flanagan provided her own spreadsheets to Selectmen and Peloquin based on the rate sheets administrative assistants had been using in drawing up contracts.
“The spreadsheets Mr. Peloquin created were based on rates from 2010,” she said. “They changed over the years.”
Selectman Bruce Young maintained the board has always approved rates the Recreation Commission recommends, but takes issue with Peloquin’s assertion that if the commission wants to discount a rate, that selectmen had to approve it over the past six years, as that protocol had not been in place. He also questioned how it was possible that Flanagan could assume such power over camp responsibilities to the extend it is alleged he did.
“You can’t do it retroactively,” Young said of the rate protocols. “It isn’t fair to anybody.”
Others were concerned about apparent conflict of interest.
“When I read this report, a couple weeks ago or whatever, it was disappointing to me … as elected officials and appointed officials, we’re all municipal employees whether we get paid or not,” Selectman Kenny Mitchell said. “We still have to adhere to the laws of the state, especially [regarding] conflict of interest.”
“We really respect the volunteering and the work that’s been done in there, but technically we volunteer also,” Scott agreed. “If we break the rules or do something that people don’t like, they’re all over us like a wet suit. You don’t have the right to break the rules.”