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January 08. 2013 11:36PM

Amherst group wants answers on administrator's leave

AMHERST - Frustrated by the secrecy surrounding Town Administrator Jim O'Mara's absence from town hall, a local citizens group is seeking answers.

"We have a town administrator who is a prominent member of the community and well-liked with a good reputation in Amherst for his work and by all accounts doing a good job, who is suddenly put on administrative leave without no reason being given," said Mark Vincent of the Amherst Citizens Association. "I think the citizens of the town have a right to know what is going on. We are operating now without a town administrator for over a month."

O'Mara was placed on administrative leave on Dec. 5.

Calling it as a personnel issue, selectmen refuse to comment on O'Mara's status as a town employee.

Bruce Bowler, selectmen chairman, said previously that private employee matters are protected under the state's Right-To-Know law, refusing to elaborate on any details of O'Mara's leave.

"The taxpayers deserve answers to these questions," said Vincent. "We need to know what is going on with the town administrator position."

The New Hampshire Union Leader has filed two Right-To-Know requests with the town seeking more information about the matter, specifically requesting documentation on whether O'Mara has been placed on paid or unpaid administrative leave from his nearly $94,000 a year position.

"We are unable to honor your request because the information you seek is part of the internal personnel file of the individual," Bowler wrote, rejecting both requests.

Rick Crocker, another active member of the Amherst Citizens Association and the town's former fire chief, said there are many local residents frustrated by the lack of transparency of town officials.

"There has to be some explanation to the people of Amherst. Where is the vote by selectmen to determine whether (O'Mara) should be placed on leave? There is no record of a vote taken. Was it unanimous or was it a split vote?" asked Crocker.

Minutes from several non-public meetings are posted on the town's website, however none of the minutes indicate that any vote was taken during the closed-door meetings. There are some topics mentioned in public meeting minutes that the Amherst Citizens Association would like clarification to, including extensive work by Finance Director Paul Hebert to reconcile $11.5 million in financial adjustments.

In a meeting on Nov. 26, O'Mara asked Hebert to elaborate on the total amount of adjustments made to date.

"Director Hebert does not want to cause concerns, because the funds are there, they just were not booked appropriately or transfers posted," says the meeting minutes. "However, so far they have moved $11.5 million dollars worth of adjustments. The majority of that is when the town collects taxes, those funds are transferred into CD and the entries were never booked. The activities were never posted in order to get the general ledger to match what the bank has and the treasurer's numbers."

While Bowler did not return a phone call seeking comment on this matter and whether it is connected to O'Mara's leave, some members of the Amherst Citizens Association want an explanation to this and other financial concerns, including the town's recent purchase of a $150,000, six-wheel dump truck. According to meeting minutes, the truck was bought with a check for $150,000 while a lease-purchase agreement was being processed.

"The expectation was that once the funding for the lease purchase came through, we would then reimburse the $150,000 to the general fund. This is not a great policy," says the minutes from an Oct. 22 selectmen meeting. "It has been done before in Amherst and in other towns. Unfortunately, because we are in a default budget, we found out after the truck was purchased in full, we cannot enter into a lease purchase."

Representatives from the citizen group want to know if either the dump truck purchase or the financial reconciliations played a role in O'Mara's departure.

Crocker described O'Mara as an open and honest individual who he believes would not do anything improper.

"Jim was questioning some of these issues and was let go 10 minutes later," said Crocker. "Jim, to me, is the kind of guy that if there is some shortcoming in the financial dealings, he would bring integrity into those processes. Maybe he was met with resistance. But again, with nobody talking, we are only trying to paint a picture based on what we have learned ..."

O'Mara, a former superintendent of the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections, took over as town administrator in October 2011. He previously served on the local school board for about six years and as selectmen chairman.

Bowler has not elaborated on when O'Mara might return to his duties at town hall, but he recently assured the public that everything is running smoothly there. Calls and emails to the other selectmen have not been returned.

khoughton@newstote.com


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