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Improvements to the Tax Assessor’s Contract

Everyone involved in the town government and elsewhere in the community brings to the table his or her particular interests and areas of expertise and experience. In my case, one of the things I’ve done as an attorney is handle a lot of contracts — including employment contracts — and the ones that the town uses are notably sloppy, to be frank.

For example, at the first meeting in office this term, I was shocked to learn that the town Web site didn’t have the full contract online for our town planner, and prior councilors weren’t even sure which version was correct. The document itself was littered with problems and even referred to a date that doesn’t exist: November 31. The council and the planner agreed to extend his probationary period, which will give everyone time to clean those problems up.

Next up came the tax assessor’s contract, which was brought the council literally on the expiration day of the regular term (though there is an automatic 120-day added cushion). Bringing contracts to the council right at their expiration is not good governance. I would like to see contract renewals come to the council well before their expiration so there is an appropriate amount of time for consideration. (Council Vice President Justin Katz and I have a pending proposal that contracts come to the council as least three months before expiration.)

Given the problems with the planner’s contract, I asked for additional time for the council and its labor counsel to review the standard template form being used. When you’re familiar with the liabilities of contracts, you see things that might be a little more subtle than a date that doesn’t exist — things that have more risks and could leave the town vulnerable to lawsuits. Some provisions in the old contract are possibly contrary to current law.

Parties to a contract can move along without ever running into a problem with sloppy language, perhaps for the entire length of their relationship. However, if a problem does come up, somebody suffers, and everybody acts surprised.

In the assessor’s case, we were able to clean the contract up in a timely fashion and without any problem other than a few political jabs from people who want to stir up controversy. Because the changes are all based on legal risks and clarity, we were able to make them without affecting the employee’s workplace experience, and it was worth taking a few weeks to get the contract closer to right, especially since the tax assessor will receive retroactive pay back to the end of his prior contract.

While this is one discrete issue, the larger goal is the continuous improvement of town government.

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Robert Coulter

Robert Coulter is President of the Tiverton Town Council and is a former member of the Charter Review Commission and Budget Committee. A lawyer, he is also a founding member of the Tiverton Taxpayers Association.

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