February 1, 2014 11:33PM
By DALE P. FAULKNER
Sun Staff Writer
WESTERLY — Two former town employees say the town’s outgoing finance director refused to consider opinions other than his own and created a “toxic atmosphere,” causing one of the workers to voluntarily leave her job after eight years.
Members of the Town Council say they have a vague recollection of receiving a letter from Lisa Christina, the employee who left after eight years. In the letter, Christina is critical of Lathrop and his management style. The council members had different takes on the contents of the letter, which was emailed to each of them, but were united in their praise for Finance Director James Lathrop, saying he had helped the town immeasurably.
On Tuesday, Lathrop submitted a letter of resignation. His last day in Westerly is Friday. He has been hired to work as finance director in Portsmouth.
This week, Christina called Lathrop “vindictive” and “unfair.” In her July 31 letter to the council, she said the atmosphere in the finance department shifted after Lathrop’s arrival in August 2011.
“His belittling of long time, dedicated workers was painful to witness,” Christina wrote. The letter also states, “in the past two years, the atmosphere in the workplace has become increasingly unpleasant. The sense of teamwork has steadily eroded, and I cannot help but attribute this to inadequate leadership.”
Lathrop, who was advised by Town Manager Michelle Buck to limit his comments for this story, responded to the claims made by Christina and former Tax Collector Melinda Boeglin by saying, “When I came to Westerly, accountability seemed to be a foreign concept for some individuals.”
Lathrop declined opportunities to comment further.
Boeglin, who worked for the town for 33 years, never returned to her position as tax collector after she broke her ankle in October 2012. Boeglin referred most questions to her lawyer, but said Lathrop bristled if she ever offered a differing point of view on how finance and tax office functions should be carried out.
“In my opinion, he wanted to be the man,” Boeglin said. “He wanted to be the tax collector and the (town) manager. He tells you what to do, and you can’t question it.”
In one instance, Boeglin said she refused to perform certain functions the way Lathrop insisted because Lathrop’s method differed from her years-long practice and because her interpretation of the state law pertaining to the function differed from Lathrop’s.
Boeglin’s position remained vacant for several months and was later filled on an interim basis. Last September, Kathy Damicis was appointed to serve in the position on a permanent basis.
Boeglin’s personal items were boxed up and removed from her office by Lathrop months before staff members were informed of Boeglin’s status, Christina said.
“The removal of the former tax collector’s belongings was handled in a totally unprofessional manner, not deserved by her, and observed by several of my co-workers,” Christina wrote.
Margaret Hogan, Boeglin’s lawyer, did not return a message seeking comment for this story.
Buck declined to comment on the assertions made by Christina and Boeglin, saying only that Boeglin had retired from her position.
“I cannot comment on specific personnel matters, as the town protects the privacy of both current and former employees, and maintains confidentiality in all matters pertaining to both threatened and pending litigation,” Buck said.
Speaking generally, Buck said the town maintains written policies and procedures for standards of employee conduct in an employee handbook.
“Employees are encouraged to seek the aid of their immediate supervisor if they are having a problem,” Buck said. “Karen Cioffi, our human resources director, is also available to meet with any employee to address issues, whether or not they have first sought assistance from a supervisor.”
Cioffi did not return a telephone message seeking comment for this story.
Buck, who was appointed interim town manager on Aug. 5 and later was named to the position on a permanent basis, said in an emailed statement she maintains an open-door policy “to help employees, and I am available to offer support, intervention and, if warranted, will warn or reprimand an employee for unacceptable behavior. A professional workplace environment that encourages our employees to achieve their career goals, while at the same time providing exceptional service to our residents, is our primary concern.”
State Sen. Frank Ciccone III, who works as business manager for Local 808, the union that represents general government workers and school employees in Westerly, said that while he had heard of dissatisfaction among some Town Hall workers, the union had not received any formal complaints.
Christina and Boeglin were classified as administrative employees, and as a result were not represented by the union.
A third employee, who served as payroll and benefits coordinator, also left the finance department during Lathrop’s tenure. That employee did not return several messages seeking comment.
“It was also no coincidence that our longtime payroll and benefits coordinator chose to leave her job recently,” Christina wrote.
Town Council President Diana Serra said she referred Christina’s letter to former Town Manager Steven Hartford, who resigned the next day.
“That is not our place; it’s up to the manager,” Serra said.
Another employee, writing a few days after the council received Christina’s letter, praised Lathrop, Serra said.
“He was creative and brought solutions to problems. I wish him the best,” Serra said of Lathrop.
Town Councilor Andrew Gencarelli, when asked about Christina’s letter, said “it rings a bell. I remember reading that, but I don’t remember anything further.” Gencarelli said Lathrop had “been good for Westerly,” helping to collect overdue taxes and providing sound input on the town’s fiscal condition.
Councilor Jack Carson said he did not “recall completely getting a copy” of the letter. He also praised Lathrop, saying his accomplishments went far beyond collecting overdue taxes to include development of an employee wellness program designed to save the town money on its health insurance costs, and refinancing loans.
“A lot of this goes unnoticed and may have been underreported,” Carson said. “He kept us on a sound fiscal course and was an exemplary finance director. He’ll be missed. He did very fine work.”
Carson speculated that some employees might have become uncomfortable with having a new boss who implemented new procedures. Councilor Patricia Douglas had a similar take.
“When you have someone you hire that is really brilliant and they have a certain work ethic, they want everyone else to have one, too,” Douglas said. “He may have made some decisions that weren’t popular, and maybe that made him not popular, but that doesn’t mean those weren’t acceptable decisions.”
Douglas called Lathrop an exceptional employee and said a number of employees in Town Hall “like and enjoy working with Jim Lathrop.”
The Sun obtained Christina’s letter last week after the town refused to release it earlier this month, saying the state Access to Public Records Act exempts from disclosure certain correspondence to elected officials. Specifically, the town referred to the following section of the Act as grounds for not releasing the letter: “Correspondence of or to elected officials with or relating to those they represent and correspondence of or to elected officials in their official capacities.”