Valley Breeze

The Valley Breeze Woonsocket North Smithfield 07-23-2020

The Valley Breeze Newspapers serving the Northern Rhode Island towns of Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, North Providence, Scituate, Foster, and Glocester

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16 BLACKSTONE JULY 23-29, 2020 | VALLEY BREEZE | NORTH SMITHFIELD BLACKSTONE WOONSOCKET EDITION $40,000 in bonuses for employees who continued working during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as another $30,000 in pay increases intended to compensate employees who took on extra work after the pandemic led to layoffs in several departments. At least a portion of the amounts were expected to be funded through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. Keefe said he first learned of the payments from his wife, Laurie Keefe, director of the Council on Aging, who was expected to receive a $2,000 bonus and a $2,000 salary increase as part of the payments. Keefe said Laurie learned of the pay- ments during a closed-door meeting with Town Administrator Daniel Keyes and Town Accountant Lauren Taylor on June 30 and relayed the information to him later that day. Board Chairman Robert Dubois said he also learned of the payments from his wife, Patricia Dubois, who serves as the secretary for the Water and Sewer Department, but was aware that some sort of renumera- tions for employees who'd taken on extra roles during the pandemic would take place. As part of the pay- ments, Patricia Dubois was expected to receive a $1,500 bonus. Keefe claims he also received phone calls from several concerned employees that afternoon and called Dubois to discuss the matter. The two men met with Keyes the fol- lowing day, a meeting during which Keefe claims to have urged the town administrator to bring the matter before the entire board for approval and ensure a "fair and equitable" sys- tem of payments for employees. Later that day, Keyes sent an email to the entire Board of Selectmen with a full list of the stipends and pay increases, as well as an updated list following the meeting with Keefe and Dubois. In addition to the $2,000 bonus for Laurie Keefe and the $1,500 bonus for Patricia Dubois, the origi- nal list included a $2,500 bonus for Administrative Assistant Sandy Nadeau-Lemoine, a $2,500 bonus for Town Accountant Lauren Taylor, a $1,500 bonus for Collector/Treasurer Kasey Bik, a $1,500 bonus for Assistant Treasurer Kelsey Lemoine, a $2,500 bonus for Health Agent Colleen Strapponi, a $2,500 bonus for Library Director Lisa Cheever, a $1,500 bonus for Assistant Library Director Tressy Collier, a $1,000 bonus for Library Custodian Russell Marvelle and three $500 bonuses for other library employees. According to the email from Keyes, the bonuses were a one-time stipend to be reimbursed through the CARES Act for employees who worked above their regular hours during the COVID-19 pandemic. The town, he said, was allotted $822,252 through the federal relief program. The list also included pay increases for several employees during the 2021 fiscal year, including $2,000 for Laurie Keefe, $4,000 for Sandy Nadeau-Lemoine, $10,000 for Kasey Bik, $10,000 for Kelsey Lemoine and $4,000 for Colleen Strapponi. According to Keyes, the pay increas- es were for employees who'd taken on extra responsibilities following layoffs and were funded through the town's budget, with an overall cost savings expected. A second set of lists was emailed to reflect the meeting with Keefe and Dubois on July 1. This list cre- ated a standard bonus of $2,500 and added several employees to the list of those who would receives bonuses, totaling $40,000 overall. It also set the amount for employees receiv- ing pay raises at $6,000, increasing the amount for some employees and decreasing it for others. On July 2, Keyes sent another email to the board withdrawing all requests for bonuses and pay raises. Though the payments were never made, the issue has created a fire- storm of controversy on social media, where Keefe has been largely respon- sible for disseminating information on the matter. Anticipating a large number of residents at Monday's Board of Selectmen meeting, the Board of Health took precaution- ary COVID-19 measures, limiting capacity in the room and setting up a screen for residents to view the proceedings outside. The town also hired a police detail to be present in the building. The proceedings were explosive, with town officials lobbing accusa- tions back and forth across the meet- ing room. Keefe accused Keyes of trying to pay off "friends" among town employees, while Dubois accused Keefe of politically motivat- ed attacks and of violating state open meetings law in his email communi- cations on the issue. On Monday, Keyes addressed his own role in the matter, telling board members the payments were all CARES Act funds and that the board had been told on June 9 there would be renumerations for certain employees. "It's absolutely inconceivable that people don't understand or don't want to listen to the fact. The fact is this," he said, proceeding to go through a list of the bonuses and pay raises. Keyes said he was stunned after the meeting when Keefe requested to make the payments more equitable, effectively increasing the bonus and pay raise for Keefe's wife, and later decided to rescind the payments alto- gether. He also said he hopes to return to the board in August with another proposal to compensate town employees through the CARES Act. "But it only is going to be done if it's fair to those who deserve it, not for those who think they deserve it," he said. Keyes declined to offer further comment to The Breeze or answer questions on how the original pay- ment amounts were determined. Selectwoman Mary Bulso recom- mended the town launch an eth- ics investigation into the matter in accordance with Massachusetts state law, an action Town Attorney Patrick Costello said would be appropriate. Selectman Robert Kluchevitz said he would support an ethics investiga- tion, but only if he had a chance to sleep on the matter before determin- ing the scope. Board members agreed to hold off on the matter until their next meet- ing. Keefe also requested that the board place Keyes on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of an investigation, saying the situation would be uncomfortable for employ- ees who came forward with their concerns, but Costello told him that action could not legally be taken dur- ing Monday's meeting. The Valley Breeze is committed to keeping quality news stories like this one free to our readers. You can be a huge part of this local journalism success story by making a one-time or monthly contribution to what we do every week at valleybreeze.com/sup- port. Thank you as always for reading. INVESTIGATION From Page One See the Jesse Liam Band at the Blackstone Library Aug. 13 BLACKSTONE – The Blackstone Public Library, 86 Main St., will present a drive-in-style outdoor con- cert with the Jesse Liam Band on Thursday, Aug. 13, at 6:30 p.m. Visitors can pull into the lot and enjoy the show or bring chairs to sit outside. This event is geared towards adults and young adults but families are welcome. Register on the calen- dar of events on the library's website at www.blackstonepubliclibrary.org . This program is supported in part by a grant from the Blackstone Cultural Council, a local agen- cy which is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency. 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