‘No one wants to leave a house half-painted’: Weeks after saying he’ll resign, retirement board chairman hasn’t left — and some town officials aren’t happy | #retirement | #elderly | #seniors
More than a month after Hampden County retirement board Chairman Richard M. Theroux said he’ll resign in the wake of a highly critical state audit, he hasn’t set a date for his departure.
And in his first interview with The Republican since the audit’s release, Theroux said he plans to stay on until he and his fellow board members address the issues flagged by the state’s Public Employee Retirement Administration Commission.
“No one wants to leave a house half-painted, especially if the owner is angry at the job,” Theroux said. “I believe we have made a lot of progress and we are going to continue to clean this up.”
But Theroux’s continued involvement is drawing the ire of some officials in communities that participate in the regional retirement system.
Town administrators from Longmeadow and Hampden recently penned a letter expressing disappointment and “utter disbelief” in Theroux’s behavior at meetings held since the audit’s public release in February, saying he has failed to show leadership and “needs to be removed.”
The letter, sent by Longmeadow Town Administrator Lyn Simmons and Hampden interim Town Administrator Bob Markel following the retirement board’s April 29 meeting, alleged that Theroux “continues to use his role as Chair as a pulpit to rant and spew misinformation to try and absolve his actions.”
The select boards in Hampden and Longmeadow have been among the most vocal of the Hampden County pension system’s 35 member units in expressing their distress over the audit’s findings. The audit covered three years, from 2014 to 2017, and highlighted questionable spending on services for the board’s website, high bank service charges, and “unusual” contracts that paid over $250,000 in health insurance premiums for two part-time attorneys.
Shortly after the audit was released in February, officials from Hampden, Longmeadow and Agawam called for the resignation of all of the board members as well as the retirement system’s executive director, Julianne Bartley.
In an interview with The Republican, Simmons explained that she felt statements Theroux made about Hampden and Longmeadow at the April 29 meeting — in which he said the communities are not happy about their return on investment — are inaccurate, and ignore the communities’ broader concerns.
“Hearing the chairman take the opportunity, any chance he got, to really go after Hampden and Longmeadow particularly, in areas that were not even brought up by either community in regards to the audit. … He could have demonstrated leadership by responding with care and concern to the audit findings and continuing to add it to every single meeting, and outline all the steps they’re taking to make sure this never happens again, because this audit only carries us to 2017,” said Simmons in an interview. “We don’t know what’s happened most recently and there is a lot of concern that we will find the same, if not worse, things.”
Simmons said Theroux’s demeanor and other statements at the April 29 meeting “demonstrated that he is absolutely not the right person and he needs to be removed.”
Simmons noted that, more than a decade before she took the helm in Longmeadow, the town’s Select Board questioned the pension system’s return on investments and considered other options. But at the Longmeadow Select Board’s April 20 meeting, members discussed the possibility of leaving the Hampden County pension system because of the “lack of responsibility and accountability” by the current retirement board regarding the audit findings.
“It was not related to the investments,” Simmons said.
Since the audit’s public release in February, Simmons said, the retirement board has been inconsistent in devoting time at its meetings to discussing the auditors’ findings and the process to correct the issues.
In the letter, Simmons and Markel wrote that they felt Theroux is using his role on the retirement board “for personal gain and had the audit not uncovered that, he would have continued.” They renewed their calls for the retirement board to take action and remove Theroux from his post.
“Chairman Theroux’s reign has caused harm to the investments by lack of oversight of administrative expenses. The organization’s improper/questionable spending, and the use of public employee and employer contributions for financial gain by way of more than generous contributions to health insurance are of significant concern to member agencies,” the letter states. “Chairman Theroux’s cavalier attitude and defensive statements speak loudly about what he finds important.”
Although Theroux has addressed questions about the audit during public meetings, he has repeatedly declined requests for comment from The Republican — until agreeing to an interview with a reporter late last week. He said he declined earlier requests to avoid creating a “he-said, she-said” atmosphere, but that the letter from Simmons and Markel warranted a response.
Theroux began by asking that the rhetoric regarding retirement board member Laurel Placzek and Bartley, a 30-year employee of the pension system, be toned down. Placzek, the Agawam town treasurer, recently resigned as a retirement board Advisory Council member and as the chairperson of the Advisory Council. Theroux said he felt both women were being wrongfully attacked by some of the member unit representatives.
“I think it’s frankly unnecessary and frankly mean-spirited. … They deserve better treatment as women who have really done their best,” Theroux said. “That isn’t to say in any way that there weren’t in this recent audit any mistakes that the board and myself were certainly blindsided by.”
Theroux said board members were shocked to learn from the audit about issues such as questionable payments for website services and an alleged violation of state law involving three board members’ enrollment in Social Security.
“But if the officials in Hampden and Longmeadow are angry, they’re not as angry as I am to be blindsided by this audit,” said Theroux. “However, I’m the chairman and I take that responsibility, and I take the blame. Mistakes were made.”
The mistakes, according to auditors, included Theroux seeking reimbursements for nearly $2,000 in what he claimed were lodging expenses during conferences on Cape Cod over three years. But the receipts he supplied listed rentals on Hyannis Point Road in Mashpee, where he has owned a condominium since 1998. Theroux repaid $1,825 to the board after the audit was released. He did not discuss the matter during the interview.
Asked by Markel during a March conference call if the condo episode was “an instance of fraud,” Theroux responded, “I cannot answer that. I would like to comment further on that to clear up this issue … but I cannot right now.”
Responding to the letter from Simmons and Markel, Theroux disputed a claim that the audit has only been discussed once at a board meeting. He said he meets weekly with staff from the state retirement commission, as well as Bartley, to go over progress toward addressing the audit’s findings. He also said other members of the board — which includes Patricia C. Donovan, Karl J. Schmaelzle and Patrick E. O’Neil — are reaching out to the state commission whenever they have questions. Navigating the waters has proven challenging, but he said he’s committed to making change.
“When you’ve had 22 good years, it’s pretty tough to have a bad one, and one of this nature,” he said. “I have been on this board for 23 years. Twenty-two perfect years and no-problem or issues with PERAC for their audits. Twenty-two years of audits with Powers & Sullivan concerning our financials with no problems. Twenty-two years of dozens and dozens of disability retirements that were never overturned or had procedural issues.”
He also said he felt officials from Longmeadow and Hampden were upset over their individual appropriations — a formula he said is based on how many employees a municipality or other member unit has, their salaries and any raises, and an actuarial study of its retirees.
“Basically if the communities don’t like the appropriation, you don’t hire people, you give less raises. It’s in their hands. It’s not in ours,” Theroux said. “The underlying issue, again, it’s the appropriation that irks them. They made those decisions, we didn’t. We didn’t. We don’t decide who gets it this year. … We don’t say, ‘We’re going to stick it to them.’ It’s the laws.”
Moving forward, Theroux said he hopes to see less of an adversarial relationship with member units, as he holds no ill will toward anyone. He encouraged communication with any member unit and invited them to sit down, in person, with himself and Bartley to discuss concerns. He spoke of his commitment to fixing the findings outlined in the audit and making changes to improve Hampden County’s pension system.
Most recently, the retirement board hired two new attorneys: Edward Pikula, Springfield’s city solicitor, and Alfredo Vivenzio of Springfield-based Scibelli & Vivenzio PC. The board is also putting out a request for proposals to install a new computer system in its Agawam office.
Theroux challenged those who’ve called for the entire board and Bartley to resign, arguing that a mass resignation would make it more difficult for the system to address the audit’s findings. He pointed to an election held last week to fill Placzek’s role, which produced a single candidate who agreed only to complete her term, which expires Dec. 31.
“Did you see many candidates from the member units wanting that job?” Theroux said. “If the whole board goes, who is going to take the reins? … All member unit treasurers were certainly eligible to run for Laurel’s seat and could be representatives, but only one person stepped up. So, instead of going back and forth over every little move, give us the opportunity to fix these problems and fix the audit and keep it as solid as it has been in the past, and hopefully will continue to be in the future.”
- Retirement board Chairman Richard Theroux claimed conference lodging expenses on Cape Cod road where he owns a condo, receipts show
- Call for resignations follows ‘absolutely scathing’ audit of Hampden County Regional Board of Retirement