TOWNSEND — Officials dismissed allegations from the Board of Water Commissioners Tuesday night that the Board of Selectmen had illegally entered into union contracts with Water Department employees.
The town paid for a legal opinion from town counsel, which asserted that selectmen were well within their rights to negotiate and sign the contract.
“It is as clear as the law that this board has the authority to enter into contracts,” Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan.
The legal opinion states that the Board of Selectmen and not the Board of Water Commissioners is considered the employer of Water Department workers, and therefore has the sole authority to enter into collective bargaining agreements.
Sheehan and Selectmen Chairwoman Sue Lisio both said that the Board of Selectmen is the contracting authority in town. To allow departments to negotiate their own contracts, they said, would be chaotic.
“How could you possiblty negotiate a single contract without understanding the whys and the wherefores of how the other contracts were negotiated and how you arrived at those decisions?” Lisio asked.
In a letter written by Water Commissioner Andrea Wood and sent to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the commissioners stated that they were formally contesting the legality and authority granted to the selectmen to sign the union contract.
“While the benefits afforded our employees is not in dispute, we the Commissioners who have full control over its revenues by way of an enterprise fund created in accordance with Chapter 44, Section 53F1/2 were never consulted nor involved in the negotiation process,” the letter said.
Although the Board of Water Commissioners did not attend the Board of Selectmen meeting to participate in the discussion, Wood was at the meeting.
She said the letter was not meant to question the contract specifically, but rather selectmen’s authority to oversee other personnel matters within the department.
Wood also said the letter to AFSCME was returned unopened, while Sheehan said he had received a response from AFSCME regarding the letter.
“There has been a number of issues with the water commissioners individually interfering with the operation of the department and with individual employees,” Sheehan said. “AFSCME is aware of that and as a representative of those employees is not, as you might expect, very pleased with that. This letter from the water commissioners has made them less pleased with that.”
Water Department employees were only incorporated into the Highway Department union last year, which is why the issue had not come up before, Sheehan said.
Lisio suggested that the Board of Water Commissioners attend the next regular selectmen meeting if they wished to discuss the matter further.
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