Dukes County Leaders Face Deepening Crisis, Admit Lack of Oversight

By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer

Admitting that their own house is now in chaos, county leaders scrambled to assay the damage this week amid a flurry of charges and counter-charges following the abrupt departure of county manager Carol Borer last month. Mrs. Borer cleaned out her office on New Year's Eve and left, taking with her a check for some $22,000 in vacation pay and sick time that she had approved for herself.

"Scandal? Certainly, but I think an even better word is a mess - we have a mess," declared county commissioner and board chairman John Alley yesterday. "I don't know if we can clean up the mess immediately, but the county commissioners need to take immediate steps so this type of incident will never happen again," he added.

"It's a huge question - where are the records? Carol produced all these records on her own," said county commissioner Nelson Smith. "Certainly there has been a lack of oversight here - I hear a lot of talk about micro-management but I'd call this macro-management."

Mr. Smith and county commissioner Paul Strauss were appointed last week to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Borer's departure. They were due to present a draft report at the county commission meeting this week, but the meeting was canceled after it was discovered that it had not been posted properly. Another meeting is now set for Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in the county office near the airport.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss told the Gazette yesterday that the paper trail around Mrs. Borer's departure is in complete disarray. They said it appeared that Mrs. Borer was entitled to be paid for some vacation pay and sick time, but all the documentation had been produced by Mrs. Borer, some of it on her own computer at home.

"We should have been able to go to a file and get these records. Carol should have gotten the county commissioners involved. I don't think that she did anything illegal, but she certainly worked the system to her advantage," said Mr. Smith.

Mrs. Borer was the county manager from October of 1997 until last November, when she announced that she would take early retirement. Her last day on the job was Dec. 31, but she had planned to stay on as a per diem consultant until a new manager was hired. But in late December it was revealed that Mrs. Borer had collected $22,000 in unused vacation and sick pay. The payment was reportedly authorized by county commissioner Leslie Leland, who was then chairman of the board. County treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders cut the check. The full county commission and the county advisory board never knew about the payment until after it was a done deal.

On the last day of the year, Mrs. Borer cleaned out her office and left. Since then, the Borers have listed their house on Main street in Vineyard Haven with Landmarks Real Estate at an asking price of $790,000.

Since the departure of Mrs. Borer, the county has been buffeted by a swirl of events, including:

* Charges of harassment and a possible lawsuit by Marsha Smolev, Mrs. Borer's administrative assistant. Ms. Smolev was quietly placed on administrative leave this week by Dianne Powers, the Dukes County Register of Deeds who is now the acting county manager (a little known provision under the county charter states that the register of deeds is also the deputy county manager).

* A criminal investigation into a vulgar e-mail received by Ms. Smolev on Jan. 3. Edgartown police reported this week that the e-mail came from Mrs. Borer's husband, Stephen Borer. Sgt. Kenneth Johnson said police officer James Craig traced the e-mail to Mr. Borer's Internet account. He said Mr. Borer was questioned later and admitted he sent the e-mail. No charges will be filed because it was a one-time incident and there was no established pattern of harassment.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss said yesterday that their investigation included interviews with Mrs. Borer, Mr. Leland, Mrs. Flanders, Ms. Smolev, Ms. Powers and county sheriff Michael McCormack. Among other things they learned that in five years Mrs. Borer took no vacation time but instead used compensatory time for her vacations. When she retired Mrs. Borer was suddenly eligible to be paid for 55 days of unused vacation time; in five years her salary had also jumped dramatically from $52,000 to $79,000, putting the value of her vacation pay at $16,755. Unused sick pay of $4,402 rounded out the compensation package.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss said the extra money was a one-time payment and will not be added to Mrs. Borer's base salary for computing her retirement pay.

They said county personnel bylaws are full of vague and contradictory language, adding to the confusion. Mrs. Borer had no contract, but she sometimes followed the rules of contract employees.

"She's a contract employee who had no contract; she's an exempt employee who acts sometimes like she's exempt, sometimes like she's not. I don't think it was handled well," said Mr. Smith.

Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss were elected in November and are freshman members of the county commission.

Mr. Alley said they were asked to look into the flap surrounding Mrs. Borer's departure because they were considered new and independent, but he admitted that based on their findings it may now be necessary to ask for a truly independent, outside investigation.

"I am hoping that the report we hear on Tuesday will give the full commission some direction as to which way to proceed. I think the public is begging for some answers and it's up to the board to provide them," Mr. Alley said.

"It may be that we need to get a better resolution of this; it may be that we need to go out and hire a professional investigator," said Mr. Smith.

Mr. Alley said he will urge the commission to adopt a plan to put the county back on track. "This is a crucial juncture - what's important to me is to put on the table on Tuesday night a plan of action. We need to decide where we go from here," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Alley said a search committee has been formed, and he vowed that the search for a new county manager will go forward.

"The search progress has not fallen apart; we are on target and we're moving along," he said. He did not deny that recent events have left a large dent in county government.

"There is uncertainty and this scandal may have impacted our ability to attract well-qualified candidates. It certainly has been a black eye," Mr. Alley said, concluding:

"But we have to deal head-on with what we've got. These are things we have to sort out. It's up to the board and we need to try and get our house back in order. This is the most challenging thing I have ever come across."