City Council President Donna Travis said last Wednesday that the council will vote on the appointment of its auditor, Catherine King Avila, an action that it failed to take when Avila assumed the 19-hour job paying $30,450.
“We didn’t know it had to be approved,” Travis said.
Travis and Camille Vella-Wilkinson, D-Ward 3 and chair of the council finance committee, picked Avila from five finalists for the post.
Soon after, John Kennedy, who regularly attends council meetings, looked into the job specification requirements and learned that Avila did not have a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college with specialization in accounting or business administration with a CPA or MBA preferred, and at least six years of related work experience in business.
In May, Kennedy and others who are regulars at council meetings circulated flyers in Wards 3 and 6 citing the selection and asking how the two councilwomen were “looking out for your tax dollars?”
The questioning escalated at last month’s council meeting when it was revealed that the full council failed to vote on the appointment.
“They’re making such a big deal of this,” Travis said of fellow council members Steve Merolla (D-Ward 9), Joseph Solomon (D-Ward 4) and Ed Ladouceur (D-Ward 5).
Travis said previous council appointments hadn’t required the full council’s appointment, and she was following the process. Now that the council’s legal counsel, John Harrington, has determined a vote is needed, Travis said she would put the matter on the consent calendar for the second meeting of this month.
Travis called the line of questioning over Avila’s selection aggravating.
“It’s as if something shady is going on,” she said.
Vella-Wilkinson defends the selection process and the choice of Avila.
In a telephone interview Thursday, she pointed out how after receiving few applicants for the position, it was suggested she look at those who had applied for a full-time auditor’s job with the city. She reviewed about 80 applications and then, using a selection process that rated the candidates on five core competencies, narrowed the field to those interviewed.
In addition to the two councilwomen, Director of Personnel Jane Jordan and a member of her staff conducted the interviews. All candidates were asked the same questions, and using the rating system, the panel ranked the candidates. Avila was first.
Vella-Wilkinson said she was unaware of the required council vote until it was brought up at the August meeting.
“I’m perfectly fine with a vote; let’s do it and move on,” she said.
Vella-Wilkinson is also comfortable with Avila’s selection, pointing out that her experience in state and municipal work makes her the most qualified candidate.
Avila served as state deputy general treasurer for the administration finance budget for more than six years; has worked with Ernest Almonte when he was state auditor general; done budget and auditing work for Secretary of State Ralph Mollis; and served on the Warren Town Council for eight years and five years with the Warren-Bristol Regional School District Finance Committee.
Reached by telephone last week, Avila said she is disturbed by what she characterized as a “nasty” campaign against her that is filled with inaccuracies and a failure to give a complete picture of her qualifications.
She pointed out that her critics – Kennedy and others in his group that are distributing flyers without attribution to their source – harp on the fact that she has a degree in psychology. While that is true, she said she never practiced psychology. Also, she notes, she has a law degree, which her critics fail to mention.
“People are running around defaming me,” she said.
Avila noted that Kennedy and the group have copies of her résumé and know of her state and municipal experience, yet choose to omit it.
She said she is “also troubled by the suggestion that I knew these people.” She did not meet either Travis or Vella-Wilkinson until she was being considered as a candidate for the job.
“They are out there debasing my reputation,” she said. “I would never do to any of them what they are doing to me.”
Meanwhile, there is an underlying current that the citizens group is stirring up the issue because one of their own, Roy Dempsey, was not picked for the job. Dempsey, one of those interviewed, is now the campaign manager for Stacia Petri, who is challenging Mayor Scott Avedisian in the Republican primary Sept. 9.
Asked yesterday whether he remains interested in the position, Dempsey said, “Right now, I’m an outsider looking at what’s happening.” Having looked at the video of the last council meeting, he said, “There’s no question how the vote is going to go.” He expects the council will affirm Avila’s selection.
Avila said she is very familiar with municipal and state budgets and that she has been working on databases so that council members have a complete picture of city expenses. She said she hopes her work will give a clear explanation of major expenditures.
To date, she said, she said she is disappointed that more council members have not called on her to research issues on their behalf.
“I would be pleased to work more closely with the council,” she said.
Vella-Wilkinson said she is pleased with Avila’s work. Travis gave her a similar endorsement.
Solomon said he hasn’t made a decision on how he would vote on Avila’s appointment.
“I haven’t seen all the résumés,” he said. “I’ll make a decision after looking at all the facts.”
Avila sees the vote as simply an up-or-down decision on her appointment.
“You can’t reopen this process,” she said. She said that would be unfair to other candidates who may not have informed their current employers that they are looking for another job.
That’s not the way Ladouceur sees it.
“I want to see who are the top six candidates and their qualifications,” he said yesterday. “I think the options should be presented to the council.”