Buckfield Town Manager’s truck purchase ‘likely permissible,’ lawyer says

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BUCKFIELD—The Board of Selectmen again was split Tuesday night on its decision to research other towns’ emergency purchasing policies, after Town Manager Cindy Dunn replaced a plow truck that burned during a nor’easter last month without notifying the board beforehand.
The vote was 2-1 with Chairwoman Martha Catevenis and Scott Violette voting for Catevenis’ motion to research and Cheryl Coffman voting against.

At the Dec. 18 meeting, the board was split the same way for Catevenis’ motion to get an opinion from Maine Municipal Association’s legal services department on whether or not Dunn violated policy and procedure.

“It wasn’t that I totally did not agree with the decision that was made. It was a decision that was made that made me as a chairperson a little nervous,” Catevenis said Tuesday. “If we didn’t get the money back that we were hoping for for this truck, where was this money coming from, that was my concern.”

According to correspondence from MMA staff attorney Breana Behrens, “It was likely permissible” for Dunn to make the purchase if there wasn’t a policy in place to prevent her from doing so, which Catevenis said Tuesday there isn’t.

MMA did advise that it might behoove the town to establish an emergency purchasing policy and guidelines as to when an emergency selectmen’s meeting should be called.

The town’s 2000 Sterling truck caught fire Dec. 10 when employee Jacob Gilbert was maintaining Brock School Road during a nor’easter. With more bad weather on the way and failing to find a truck to borrow or rent, Dunn consulted with the town’s Public Works crew, who found a comparable 2002 Sterling truck for $24,900 in Concord, N.H.

The town manager previously said she made the executive decision to purchase the truck with the town’s day-to-day cash flow and planned to recoup the money from the town’s insurance company.

“When it’s an emergency of that nature, we as town managers have no time. We need to react, and that’s what I did in this case,” Dunn said Tuesday. She said the fire occurred Wednesday morning and the purchase was made the next day.

Catevenis made an original motion to allow the town manager to utilize up to $10,000 in the town’s emergency fund, which is all of it, without first consulting selectmen.

“I truly appreciate your trust in me to make those decisions. This is an example [in which] $10,000 isn’t enough,” Dunn said.

She said the motion couldn’t be voted on because the language of the warrant couldn’t be altered since the emergency fund was voted on at town meeting in June.

“If there’s no way to free up your hands to make this decision, then this should have never been made,” Catevenis told Dunn, adding she was worried the townspeople could sue the board over money overages.

“My fear is without our knowledge, we could be $25,000 in debt,” Catevenis said.

“I think this is a big ado about something that’s not going to happen … Unless you know someone out there in the town that’s going to sue us, it’s not something I am overly concerned with,” Coffman said. She said there’s no need to be an alarmist and Dunn did not make the decision lightly.

“I don’t believe I am being an alarmist. I believe I am being a realist,” Catevenis said.

Catevenis rescinded her original motion and made another to research what other towns’ emergency purchasing policies are, including finding out if there’s a monetary threshold and/or a list of items or emergencies that a town manager can make purchases for without consulting selectmen first.

Coffman said the town manager acts like a chief operating officer of a corporation and the board is there for consulting and is not always available during emergency situations.

“When you’re literally tying the hands of the town manager, to me it’s a vote of no confidence, and I think our town manager does a great job for us and (it’s) not necessarily a move for us to make,” she said.

After Catevenis reiterated her point of wanting the town manager to keep the board in the loop of emergency situations and purchases, Dunn apologized to selectmen. She said she initially informed them of the fire and her search for a borrowed or rental truck, but not of the purchase until after the fact.

“You know what hit the fan and panic mode kind of set in,” Dunn said. “I will definitely apologize to each one of you for not informing you earlier.”

Regarding the cost of the damaged truck, Buckfield’s insurance company originally offered the town $27,900, but Dunn asked for reconsideration of the offer since the town put $41,000 worth of work into the truck after purchasing it in 2009 for $9,000.

On Tuesday, Dunn heard from the insurance company, which offered $31,154 for the truck and $3,750 for towing, plus the cost of the truck’s calcium distribution system, which is unknown as this time.

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