By a 3-2 vote and against the general comments of residents, and with Town Manager Grady Miller absent because of a family emergency, the Narragansett Town Council approved a motion at Monday night’s meeting to have the solicitor investigate whether Miller broke town budget regulations.
Councilors Glenna Hagopian, David Crook and Alisa Trainor Fleet voted in favor of the motion. Councilors Christopher Wilkens and Susan Cicilline-Buonanno voted against it.
Miller was unable to speak in his defense at Monday night’s meeting because of a family emergency.
The council met at 6 p.m., prior to the regularly scheduled 7:30 p.m. meeting, for a work session on a study of the town’s fire department. At about 6:25 p.m., a family member of Miller arrived, and Miller left the meeting.
The council took a five-minute break at that time, and when they reconvened at about 6:31 p.m., Hagopian said, “Grady’s father is quite ill, so he’s had to get on a plane to California.”
However, the absence of Miller did not prevent the council from voting on the motion at their meeting at about 9:30 p.m., after about 30 minutes of debate. Miller did speak the previous week and presented memos in his defense. (For our story on the previous meeting, click here.)
At issue is whether Miller erred in shifting $3,000 from one portion of the budget to another for the Narrow River Preservation Society. Hagopian, who brought the motion forward to have Miller investigated, said at a previous meeting that she viewed the action as against council directives.
The council approved the budget with the $3,000 shift on June 6, 2011, by a 5-0 vote.
On Monday night, seven residents spoke on the motion, with six suggesting that the council drop the proposed probe.
“I urge the council tonight and I urge the council president to withdraw this motion,” Meg Rogers, the chairwoman of the Narragansett Republican Town Committee, said. “If there was a breakdown in communication, I don’t think it occurred on the part of the town manager.”
She added, “There is an $83 million unfunded pension liability … We’re worried about $3,000. Now our town manager has to expend his valuable time and taxpayer money to respond to a specious allegation.”
Resident Stanley Wojciechowski was the lone person speaking in favor of the motion Monday night.
“This is a financial moral compass,” he said. “How are we going to conduct ourselves?”
Wojciechowski compared Miller’s actions to that of general government accounting practices that had caused huge unfunded pension liabilities and other budget deficits via not worrying about little amounts.
“That’s what happens sometimes with government, we don’t worry about the pennies,” he said. “I want to thank you for at least searching for the moral compass, and moving in that direction.”
Resident John Webb questioned what the council ultimately wanted to accomplish.
“I don’t know what you’re implying, which gets to my basic question,” he said. “[Are you trying to] find a way to get the money back, or change the accounting process?”
He added, “I think you have more important things to do than waste your time on this witch hunt, or whatever it is.”
Richard Vangermeersch, a Narragansett resident and a former University of Rhode Island accounting professor, told the council that any investigation would most likely be inconclusive.
“There are precious few case studies as to whether this $3,000 charge should be taken out of the general fund or the special projects fund of the wastewater department,” he said. “This question is akin to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”
Vangermeersch said the matter was one without a clear answer.
“We are dealing with a series of accounting questions that are neither white nor black, but shades of grey,” he said. “I think the whole world of accounting is waiting with bated breath for him [Town Solicitor Mark McSally] to tell us what we should do.”
Resident Carol Stuart called the approval of the motion a reflection of the “toxic culture” at town hall, referring to the council.
“The issue itself does not rise to the level of scrutiny of those who decided to bring this forward in such a public manner,” she said. “We need to see our council demonstrating collegiality.”
Although the council approved the motion to have McSally look at Miller’s actions, it did so without any timetable or budget. Therefore, it could reappear on any council agenda in the future.