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Christenson proposes compromise to CFO plan disagreement

Posted by Matt Byrne  May 12, 2011 09:04 AM

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In the latest effort to restructure the City of Malden’s financial apparatus, Ward 1 Councilor Gary Christenson outlined a compromise that would keep the hotly debated appointing authority over key finance officers with the city council, while still centralizing oversight of the city’s finances in a new top finance job.

Christenson’s plan, outlined in a memo to the council Tuesday, would convert the treasurer position to a chief financial officer, who would manage day-to-day financial operations, play a key role in formulating the city budget with the Mayor’s direction, and orchestrate long-range financial planning. 

“I have spoken with the administration about this potential agreement and the indications
are that the mayor [Richard C. Howard] will sign the compromise if it is voted out by the city council,” Christenson wrote.
 

The move is similar to the previous effort, and would also change term requirements, making the new CFO position -- as well as the Controller -- three-year appointments, down from five-year terms. Christenson’s plan also provides provisions for the CFO’s removal by the mayor, a section absent from previous drafts, and a point of contention during a legal evaluation of the proposal.

The overture to compromise comes after contentious debate when councilors drafted the first CFO paper during months of finance committee deliberation. During those talks, appointment authority was a key sticking point for Councilor at Large Deborah Fallon, who was the lone dissenting vote against the plan when it was voted out of committee.

During talks the at-large councilor said that  shifting appointing authority of the CFO, assessor, and collector -- currently held by the city council – would signal the council’s abandonment checks-and-balances responsibilities, she said. 

Much of the disagreement over the CFO plan circles around an April 19 legal opinion by city Solicitor Kathryn M. Fallon, in which she strongly recommended the council retain all appointing authority, and suggested changes to the proposal so that the new structure would not contradict state laws.

Kathryn Fallon is Deborah Fallon’s sister. 

That opinion, coupled with indications in committee of wavering support on the wider council if the plan were to come to a vote, left the long sought-after restructuring largely in the lurch, with councilor Neil C. Kinnon calling for an impartial reading of the proposal after Fallon’s opinion was issued.

Kathryn Fallon, meanwhile has said her opinion was “recitation of the law,” and nothing more.

To pass, the CFO rules need the support of eight of the 11 councilors – a two-thirds majority – before the mayor would have a chance to sign off on them. Because the changes require altering the city’s charter, the paper would be filed in a home rule petition to the state legislature for the thumbs-up. Then it would need the signature of Governor Deval Patrick before becoming local statute.

The push to reform oversight began in 2008, after authorities arrested an employee in the city treasurer's office who embezzled more than $500,000 from Malden coffers. Gia Marie DeSantis pleaded guilty to the charges.

Following the public disclosure and investigation of the theft, Mayor Richard C. Howard vowed to correct "any deficiencies" in the financial process in Malden, he said in a November 2008 statement.

The measure nearly came to the floor for a vote last month, but was stalled when Fallon handed up the opinion hours before the council meeting. The measure has languished in the finance committee ever since while councilors regroup for a push to pass it.

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