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January 15. 2013 10:38PM

Amherst official on paid leave, townspeople told

AMHERST - An elected official confirmed Tuesday that Town Administrator Jim O'Mara, placed on leave last month, is being paid.

Selectman Dwight Brew told the Amherst Citizens Association that the decision to place O'Mara on paid leave was unanimous on the part of the five-member Board of Selectmen. Until Tuesday, selectmen have been silent about the town administrator's absence from town hall, refusing to answer any questions.

Brew was the only selectman to attend the public meeting.

"I am comfortable that we are operating within the confines of the law," Brew said of the board's decision to reject right-to-know requests on the matter.

Responding to questions about whether some town employees were required to sign nondisclosure statements forbidding them to comment on O'Mara's leave, Brew, vice-chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said that he did not sign any type of gag order. Still, Brew acknowledged that selectmen are following the advice of their legal counsel. He said he is not comfortable speaking as an individual board member.

"As much as I'd like to answer a couple of those (questions) ... I just can't," he told the group of about 10 people in attendance.

According to Brew, selectmen voted to place O'Mara on administrative leave on Dec. 3, two days before the town administrator was last seen at town hall. Chairman Bruce Bowler has refused to comment on the issue, saying it is a personnel matter.

State Rep. Peter Hansen said he typically tries to stay out of town business, but felt the need to be present for Tuesday's meeting because his constituents want answers.

"There is no question that management has been lacking in the town of Amherst for quite some time," said Rick Crocker of the Amherst Citizens Association. "A lot of people are wondering why O'Mara isn't there to turn the ship around."

Crocker said he had a lot of faith in O'Mara, as did selectmen when they hired him in the fall of 2011.

"The thing with Jim has opened up a can of worms," said Crocker, explaining that the town's financial management practices are now being questioned because of a lack of transparency by elected officials.

The Amherst Citizens Association would like to know why extensive work by Finance Director Paul Hebert to reconcile $11.5 million in financial adjustments has been under way for the past several months, and also want an explanation for the town's recent purchase of a $150,000, six-wheel dump truck being.

Representatives from the citizen group are curious if either the dump truck, being paid for with money from a default budget, or the financial reconciliations played a role in O'Mara's departure.

"It is absolutely not that $11.5 million was in the wrong place," Brew explained. "I think they were just behind. We are taking major steps to get caught up."

Brew said the town should expect to see an audit in the next few months.

Meanwhile, Crocker said his group will continue to seek sound, reasonable spending and transparency from local government. The association is preparing a list of more than 50 questions to ask the Board of Selectmen, he said.

"We would love to have the other four here," Crocker said, thanking Brew for acknowledging at least some of the association's questions.

khoughton@newstote.com

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