By ADAM ATKINSON
CANTON – Town Supervisor David Button faced a public grilling last night regarding his previous opposition to adding an anti-nepotism clause to the Canton town ethics policy.
Criticism of Button continued later in the town board meeting Wednesday night over recent increases in bi-weekly insurance premium payments by the supervisor, town clerk and town attorney. These changes, it turns out, while potentially saving the town money, should have been approved by the town board and were instead instigated without the board’s knowledge.
But first, during the public comment section of the board meeting Wednesday, town resident Ronnie Olesker asked if the board would address a recent suggestion by town Councilman Rob Washo for the town to adopt an anti-nepotism clause from the state comptroller’s ethics policy.
“Why do we need one?” said Button.
“Why don’t we need one,” said resident Danny Thomas.
Olesker asked Button if he was in favor of an anti-nepotism policy in the town ethics law. Button again asked why such a clause was needed.
“Because recent events have undermined the public confidence,” said Olesker.
Washo had introduced the idea at the town board meeting last month, but met opposition from Button who felt adoption of such language in the existing ethics policy would imply fault on his department’s part.
Button, who has discretion in handling his department’s budget and who works there, had previously employed his wife Denise Button in the supervisor’s office for the last 16 years. Mrs. Button handled bookkeeping and other office support work until her official retirement in 2015.
She continued to work in the office after retirement handling some human resources functions and other duties.
After 2015, Mr. Button took over bookkeeping duties at the office and paid himself a salary within the restrictions of his budget for doing the bookkeeping work. Mrs. Button made a small salary to allow her to qualify for worker’s compensation should the need arise. However, because Button is an elected official changes in his salary need to be approved by the town board.
Earlier this summer, questions were raised as to how the whole issue was handled in 2015 with the transition and how it had been maintained since. After several meetings and numerous public comments critical of the arrangement, Mr. Button paid back the salary he had earned for the bookkeeper’s work since 2015 ($73,794.16) and the town board then approved a payment of $58,857.62 back to Mrs. Button for work she had continued to do after retirement. The Buttons were left to sort out the details of their taxes and other accounting in the wake of the retroactive pay changes. Mrs. Button is no longer working in the office.
The board then hired the accounting firm of John Gray at about $4,100 a month to handle the town’s accounting. The proposed executive budget plan for 2018 accounts for $60,000 to hire an outside bookkeeping firm next year.
“But those (recent events) are not related to nepotism,” Button said at the Wednesday night meeting. “I just need to understand the need for that when we haven’t had a problem.”
The supervisor said he was not opposed to such a clause but advocated for an overhaul of the entire ethics policy instead.
“It’s an attack by innuendo,” said Button, “so tell me what the problem is?”
Another resident said that implementing an anti-nepotism clause in the town ethics code would help prevent future situations which might occur and that it didn’t necessarily have to deal with the recent issues surrounding the Buttons and their salaries.
“I think the problem is public trust,” said Thomas, “and if you can’t see that, it (exacerbates) things exponentially.”
Button said the issue being raised was politically motivated.
“This room is largely filled with people who are politically opposed to my leadership,” the supervisor said. The supervisor is running for re-election to the post in November.
“We are telling you there is a problem, it’s not your (specific) problem, but it is a problem,” said Olesker.
Town Councilman Paul Backus said the council did previously make a mistake with the salary issue in the supervisor’s office, but that the board had resolved the issue. “We don’t have a situation anymore. We’ve responded to what the public asked for.”
Backus pointed out that the salary received by Button had been returned, and then properly paid out to Mrs. Button and that she no longer worked as a bookkeeper in the office and that an independent firm had been contracted to handle the town accounting from now on. “Golly guys, we’ve kind of done what you’ve asked for,” Backus said.
“We still have a problem with the (ethics) policy in place,” said town resident James Norminton. Norminton said the language of the policy regarding nepotism was “vague.” He urged the board to adopt the comptroller’s language regarding nepotism which states that the practice of hiring family members to work for a related municipal official was unethical. “You haven’t fixed your internal controls . . . You have to address this. . . It is time for you to update.”
Washo said he wanted to “set the record straight” regarding his reasons for bringing up the nepotism policy. Washo said the “cat was already out of the bag” regarding the Buttons working together in the supervisor’s office, as the couple had done so for years and everyone knew that already. He called that fact “old headlines.”
The councilman said his reason for bringing up the clause was not political in the sense that it was directed at the Buttons, but that he felt a nepotism policy needed to be added to the ethics code before the new term for town officials elected in November began.
Button said the move to adopt anti-nepotism language in the ethics policy implied “that something colossal has gone wrong” in the management of his office.
“That is inaccurate,” said Washo. The councilman said he wanted to see a “higher standard going forward.”
Town resident Tim Danehy said the retirement of Mrs. Button in 2015 and how that was handled with reallocations in salary was “absurd.”
“But for you (Button) to say ‘oh we don’t have a problem,’ with all due respect sir, the public will decide if there is a problem,” Danehy said.
Town Councilman Phil LaMarche said he felt the 2015 town board did not have a “clear understanding” of how the bookkeeper’s salary in the supervisor’s office was reallocated after Mrs. Button’s decision to retire. He said that council members may not have realized that Mr. Button would be employing himself to handle bookkeeping duties and Mrs. Button would help with other office work, and that a large part of her previous salary would be paid Mr. Button. LaMarche was not a member of the board at that time.
Councilman Backus said the 2015 change was simply a change in how the salary was distributed. Backus said the board did make a mistake in how the situation was handled and how the change was not documented in the public record, but that no extra tax money was spent.
“What I’m speaking to, is that the public story is that this was greenlighted and everything was okay,” said LaMarche. The councilman said the board agreed to a reshuffling of duties within the office but not necessarily employing Mr. Button as his own bookkeeper.
Button disputed that assertion.
“When I voted in favor, David, I was told a story. I voted on something that I felt I was misled on,” LaMarche said, referring to a vote earlier this summer which was initially supposed to address and fix the issue. Several other actions have followed that first vote by the board, before the board and town attorney felt satisfied the issue was resolved.
Washo added that a year ago, at budget time, he voted on a cost of living pay increase for town employees, and approved such a raise for Denise Button working as book keeper in the supervisor’s office. Washo said Mrs. Button was named as bookkeeper at the time and that he found out later that Mr. Button, as bookkeeper, was getting the raise not Mrs. Button.
Mr. Button disputed that as well. “What we do in our budget is show functions not people,” Button said.
The board then discussed the recent voluntary increase in bi-weekly premium payments for town health insurance by the supervisor, town clerk and town attorney. Apparently, Button had instigated the increases after speaking with the involved parties.
The three employees recently increased their bi-weekly premium payments from $10 to $45, bringing the policies more in line with those of other town employees. The three began employment prior to 2002 when the overall town insurance policy offered 100 percent coverage for a $10 premium payment per pay period, said town Attorney Charles T. Nash. Employees after 2002 were offered insurance with a higher premium payment.
At the meeting tonight, Button said the board could not approve a premium payment change in the middle of a term, a statement quickly refuted by Attorney Nash.
“That’s not accurate David,” said Nash. Nash said that according to Article 6 of the insurance law followed by the town, that the town board reserves the right to modify policies that date from before 2002.
“The town board can decide what the health coverage is . . . it’s not true that that you can’t change this policy mid-term,” said Nash. Nash said he didn’t have an issue with the greater payment but that the change had to be done correctly by the board.
Button disagreed with Nash.
Washo was critical of Button’s stance on the issue.
“You (Button) should recuse yourself. Not only should you not be running solo on this, you should step aside and let the board handle it,” Washo said. Given the recent issues surrounding the supervisor’s pay, the councilman said “we should be hypersensitive of doing things without board knowledge in open session.”
LaMarche was also critical. “Why does a reporter know about this (a story regarding the insurance change was recently published in a regional paper) and the town board doesn’t?” LaMarche said.
LaMarche said he felt that he needed to study the issue more before he could vote on any change. He and Councilman Jimmy Smith were assigned to a committee to review the premium payment changes and then advise the board on their findings at a later date.