Un-Canney: Town clerk rebuked for unapproved purchases


AYER — During a lengthy meeting for which there were more potential agenda items than could be covered in one night, selectmen Chairman Pauline Conley scolded tax collector and town clerk John Canney for seeking reimbursement for mileage driven within the town.

“You are charging the town money to drive around town?” she asked incredulously. “As a taxpayer I find that offensive … Pay yourself out of your own pocket.”

The topic of discussion centered on Town Hall purchasing, a subject that Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said the selectmen had requested be put on the agenda.

At issue were Canney’s charges for mileage on his personal vehicle as well as his purchase of a $300 vacuum cleaner, a $1,200 filing cabinet, (which Canney has since returned,) and other items for his office.

Centralized Town Hall Purchasing

In terms of the town’s purchasing policy, Pontbriand cited Mass. General Law (MGL) Ch. 30B, Procurement of Supplies and Services, which states that the procurement procedure for amounts up to $10,000 are subject to sound business practices. Purchases of $10,000 or above require three bids.

As the chief procurement officer, said Pontbriand, department heads used to come to him to do purchasing and procurement, after which he would send a memo to the town accountant “and move forward from there.”

“All departments traditionally and historically have had the authority to make purchases for their offices as they see fit, as long as it is in accordance with the law and fiduciary aspects of the town accounting,” he said. “So they’re reviewed by the town accountant and myself, at times.

Pontbriand’s issue with Canney was for the larger items. He said that the town currently has no formal policy on the purchase of furniture and equipment such as hardware and software.

He has asked that a formal town-wide policy be established that includes the approval of software and hardware for the town, so that the town’s systems administrator is the person who determines what hardware and software should be used with the town’s server and infrastructure, and can also get the best price.

Pontbriand cited the Ayer Town Government Study Committee recommendation of October 4, 2011, implemented by the selectmen last January, which states that all functions of the Town Hall “shall be overseen by the Town Administrator in conjunction with the facilities manager.”

He went on to say that it is his opinion that the town needs a centralized person to whom department heads can turn prior to the purchase of items such as furniture, “so whatever is acquired fits in the building,” which must be ADA compliant.

He said that he was never consulted on the town clerk’s purchases, and that since he is also the town’s ADA coordinator, he must make sure that the building “meets all of those requirements.”

“I understand that (the filing cabinet) is going back, but size and placement could affect the turning radius of those in a mobile vehicle or wheelchair,” he said.

“Finally, on this issue … I will defer to the FinCom’s determination on the financial aspect of it, as that is their purview. But in the future I can assure the board that you will be presented with a formal policy to follow the town government study policy already approved.”

Next time, he said, addressing Canney, “let’s have a discussion before you do things, to make sure everything is proper for the building.”

Canney made it clear that he would be happy to have his office made ADA compliant, as, according to him, there is currently no way someone in a wheelchair could maneuver a turn in there. He also pointed out that he had purchased a filing cabinet in 2010, to which Pontbriand seemed to have no objection.

Dust and Clutter

Canney complained that he no longer has a key available to him with which to access cleaning supplies, and that the office is not always cleaned and vacuumed properly, which is why he purchased the vacuum.

Pontbriand said that he has a master key and would be happy to give it to Canney to get out the vacuum cleaner. Or, he said, he could go to the facilities manager.

But, he said, “It is not always easy to vacuum in there because there are items all over the floor.”

Conley suggested that Canney speak to the facilities manager about access, and that if he is not satisfied, to go to Pontbriand.

“As far as I am concerned, the vacuum cleaner belongs to the town and stays in that closet,” she said.

Regarding the filing cabinet, Selectman Chris Hillman suggested hiring a shelving company and getting some quotes. The shelves in the tax collector’s office have been in there probably since the 1970s, he said.

“The 1870’s,” corrected Conley facetiously.

FinCom Chairman Scott Houde repeated a recommendation he had made previously that some of the papers be digitized. “Instead of just finding more places to put paper, you have our financial support to find another solution.”

The reason he was against the filing cabinet purchase, he said, is that he has not seen any action on the disposal and digitizing of papers.

Conley suggested that Canney discuss the digitizing budget with the FinCom.

Other Expenditures

Selectmen Vice Chairman Gary Luca pressed Canney on his request for reimbursement for a town clerk meeting at a hotel, a retirement party (which Canney said he paid for out of his own pocket,) and the purchase of pocket calendars.

“Where did the money come from all of the sudden?” asked Hillman, pointing out that Canney’s initial request went from $1,200 to $100. “Lo and behold, there is money for a vacuum and filing cabinet,” he said.

“I have an issue with the way Town Hall is kept sometimes, so I don’t necessarily disagree with John, but we need to have a powwow and find out what the real issue is; there is a communication problem.”

“I am very concerned with the path of this purchasing and lack of control of proper funding of purchasing. There is clearly a misunderstanding about the local travel policy, if someone can go from Town Hall to the library and claim mileage,” said Selectman Jim Fay. “There is a clearly defined local travel policy and that can be addressed in the (FinCom-requested) working group.”

Although Canney insisted that town meeting gives department heads the authority to purchase from their budgets, Town Counsel Mark Reich later rebutted that claim, telling the selectmen that the town has a chief procurement officer, “and he and you are the ultimate gatekeepers on spending for the town.”

About Town

Regarding the local travel policy, said Canney, part of his job, in order to comply with election laws, is to put up signs.

“How much does it cost you to walk down to the hallway and put a sign up?” asked Conley.

“I don’t believe in spending the taxpayers’ money unreasonably or unfairly,” Canney later stated, causing Conley to do a double-take.

“Here is the problem with the mileage,” later interjected Selectman Jannice Linvingston. “I understand you used your personal car to go to the police station and put up a sign, but you didn’t really go a mile … It looks like nickel and diming to the voters. A little common sense needs to be used.

“Your budget falls under the purview of the selectmen and town meeting,” said Conley to Canney. “We will have a new policy in place about how capital equipment is purchased for the building, but any large expensive items should go to capital planning and the FinCom so that this does not happen again.”

She reiterated that she is “personally offended by 53-cent charges to put up a sign to remind people to vote.”

Livingston said that she would work with Pontbriand and I.T. Systems Administrator Cindy Knox to come up with something to make sure everyone is on the same page.