Finance Committee, Director At Odds Over Committee’s Role

By: Ryan Bray

Topics: Municipal Finance , Orleans news , town charter

Finance committee members discuss comments made by the town's finance director, Cathy Doane, about the committee's proposed charter review change to allow it more oversight over the town's financial activity during a virtual meeting on Dec. 30. RYAN BRAY  PHOTO

ORLEANS – A proposed charter change has led to a disagreement between the finance committee and the town's finance director over how big a role the committee should have in reviewing the town's financial affairs.

The charter review committee took a preliminary vote Jan. 3 not to support a proposed charter change proposed by the finance committee seeking to give it the authority to independently review all of the town's financial activity. The proposal has caused tension between the committee and Finance Director Cathy Doane, who said committee members do not have the expertise necessary to carry out the expanded charge.

Instead, Doane says the committee's role should be to make recommendations on town meeting warrant articles related to spending, the annual town budget and the town's capital improvement plan.

As currently written, the town charter defines the finance committee's role as being "to independently examine and analyze the town's financial affairs, including proposed budgets, the capital improvements plan, and all other proposals which would have a financial impact; and to inform the citizens of the town of its findings and recommendations."

The finance committee's proposed amendment to the charter would broaden its authority to review "all aspects of the town's financial affairs."

In an email dated Nov. 29 to Jon Fuller, chair of the charter review committee, Doane said language in the charter should instead be changed to clarify the finance committee's role as being "to consider town meeting articles for the purpose of making recommendations to the town."

Doane further alleged in the email that the proposed change is being brought at the request of Lynn Bruneau, the chair of the finance committee. While Doane recognized Bruneau's "passion and enthusiasm" for her work on the committee, she said granting the committee the authority to analyze financial matters beyond their expertise could lead to "embarrassment, misrepresentation, confusion and chaos."

"The type of questions I receive from [Bruneau] illustrates her lack of understanding of municipal finance, and the [select board] are well aware of the demands she has placed on my time and that of my staff," she wrote. Doane also said in the email that she has been instructed by the select board to limit her time responding to Bruneau.

Elaine Baird of the finance committee said Dec. 30 that she felt "profoundly disrespected" by Doane's comments, both in her email and in other comments made to the charter review committee on Dec. 20. Meanwhile, Roger Pearson has resigned from the committee out of frustration over Doane's comments, Bruneau said.

"I do need to say that a few or several of Cathy Doane's comments at that hearing were very difficult and somewhat disparaging for the fincom to hear," Town Moderator David Lyttle, who has appointing authority over the finance committee, told the charter review committee at its Jan. 3 meeting.

Doane told the charter review committee Dec. 20 that language in the charter regarding the finance committee's role was changed in 2008. In 2010, she said, Town Administrator John Kelly sent a memo to Town Counsel Michael Ford asking for clarification as to the scope of the committee's responsibilities.

A copy of Ford's response to Kelly from July 27, 2010, which Doane provided to The Chronicle, makes clear that the language in the 2008 charter amendment "does not extend upon fincom's prior responsibilities as outlined in the charter which included a review of proposed budgets, the [capital improvement plan], and all other financial proposals that have financial implications for reporting to the voters in the town meeting warrant."

Doane expressed frustration to the charter review committee with having to tell finance committee members to "basically stay in their own lane" when it comes to analyzing the town's finances. But Bruneau said in a phone interview that allowing the finance committee oversight over the town's finances offers the town added checks and balances, something she said could help avoid financial fallouts that have taken place in Brewster and Wellfleet in recent years.

"We're supposed to be independent," she said. "You cannot have the finance director be the one who sets the rules and the guidelines of what the finance committee is allowed to do, because our position is we're going to end up looking like Wellfleet."
Doane noted in her Nov. 29 email that the town already has an independent firm that audits its finances annually. But Lyttle on Jan. 3 backed the committee's right to ask questions of town staff.

"The fact that they may be ruffling a few feathers, I think it's healthy," he said. "They're doing their job."

Bruneau also challenged Doane's assertion that finance committee members lack the experience to properly help analyze activity in the town's finance department. She noted her own background as a former partner with the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. Pearson was a partner with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Bruneau said, and others on the committee have decades of experience in international finance, she said.

"My intent was never to insult or disparage the invaluable business knowledge of the current members of the finance committee," Doane said in an email Jan. 10.

Doane said the finance committee has the important role of reviewing "proposed budgets, the capital improvement plan and other proposals that have financial implications to the town for reporting to the voters at town meetings." She also pledged her cooperation in support of the committee's work in those areas.

"I look forward to putting this behind us and moving forward to continue to ensure that town voters have everything they need to make educated votes at future town meetings," she said.

Lyttle said Jan. 3 that he does not see the need for any change to the finance committee's responsibilities, and that he supports the committee continuing its work as it has been.

"Town counsel opined in 2010 that nothing changed [when the charter was revised in 2008], and I am opining that nothing has changed now."

Mark Benson of the charter review committee suggested that Kelly and Doane work with the finance committee to prepare a handbook outlining the committee's roles in responsibilities.

"That's something that should be the policy of the [select board] working with the moderator and the finance committee to develop such a handbook if necessary," Fuller said.

Email Ryan Bray at ryan@capecodchronicle.com