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Town experiences growing pains during leadership transition period

by | Jan 8, 2024 | Featured: News, News

During the past year, Hopkinton has experienced the departure of several town leaders and the announcement of Town Manager Norman Khumalo’s retirement from municipal government to pursue a private sector position.

Examples include the Department of Public Works and Parks & Recreation Department heads leaving their roles. The Finance Department remains without a chief financial officer, while the Select Board selected interim Fire Chief Gary Daugherty Jr. as its permanent chief at its Jan. 2 meeting.

The Hopkinton Police Department is working to recruit new officers in the wake of retired Deputy Chief John “Jay” Porter’s ongoing legal case. There are three allegations of sexual assault against him by a woman who was a Hopkinton High School student two decades ago while Porter served as the HPD school resource officer. Current HPD Sgt. Tim Brennan has been implicated in the case because an investigation determined that he had knowledge of these allegations but did not report them to his supervisor.

Hopkinton attracts new talent, promotes from within

The transition period has highlighted an infusion of new talent and the promotion of respected community members. Kerry Reed became the director of the Department of Public Works after serving as Conservation Commission co-vice chair. Jon Lewitus was appointed as Parks & Recreation director, and he recently implemented a successful Skateboard & BMX jam. Julia Chun was appointed to the new role of  the town’s sustainability, economic development and equity project manager. The town recently was awarded a $35,000 grant from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s Accelerating Climate Resiliency grant program, to which she applied.

In a December press release, Khumalo introduced 13 people who either joined the town’s staff or were promoted to new roles within their departments. These included several positions in the Hopkinton Public Library, two new police officers, two new firefighter/paramedics, and a new assistant treasurer/collector. Learn more about these employees here.

Town acknowledges mistake regarding ‘fraudulent invoice’

In a Dec. 20 email to the Independent, Khumalo acknowledged that a recently hired town employee paid a “fraudulent invoice” for a committee ad from the website HopNews. According to a HopNews article, the invoice was submitted in an attempt to expose suspected faulty practices in town government.

Khumalo attributed the situation to “human error.”

“Accounting Dept. was told by a Sustainable Green Committee member to expect an invoice from a news publication to publicize its EV Expo event,” Khumalo stated in the email. “The invoice in the mail referenced advertising for this event for an amount similar to what was expected.”

A chronology provided to the Independent by Khumalo showed that the treasurer of the Sustainable Green Committee (who was not named) met with Poonam Rijhsinghani, the town’s new assistant town accountant, on Oct. 13.

“The treasurer mentioned that the Town of Hopkinton would receive an invoice for an ad placed in the newspaper for the EV Expo by the Sustainable Green Committee,” according to the email. At that point, Rijhsinghani sought guidance from her supervisor on how to process it.

An invoice from Arch Publishing, the parent company of HopNews, for $200 for an ad for this event was received by the town’s accounting office on Nov. 6. According to Khumalo’s email, two days later Rijhsinghani attempted to email the Sustainable Green Committee treasurer and copied the town accountant to verify if the invoice had been paid. Khumalo’s email stated that the town accountant did not respond to the email.

Khumalo’s email stated: “There was no response from Diane as the email was inadvertently sent to the wrong Diane H.”

Diane Hendrickson is the town treasurer/collector. The town accountant position is vacant, according to the town website. Diane M. Hayward is a member of the Sustainable Green Committee. It is unclear to whom the original email from Rijhsinghani had been directed.

On Nov. 8, Rijhsinghani requested and received a vendor W-9 form from HopNews. The invoice was processed on Nov. 13 and approved on Nov. 16. The town issued a check on Nov. 21.

On Dec. 4, the “town learns from vendor that the invoice was fraudulent,” according to the email. The Accounting Department voided the check that day, and the check was returned by the vendor on Dec. 11.

The situation was addressed by Select Board chair Muriel Kramer at the Dec. 5 Select Board meeting.

“We learned today that the Town of Hopkinton recently received a fraudulent invoice from HopNews.com that was unfortunately processed and subsequently paid,” Kramer said at the meeting. “We have taken the appropriate steps to correct for the mistake and cancel the payment; we have further taken the steps to ensure that our review processes for like payments are reinforced to protect our employees and the town from similar fraudulent activity in the future.”

In his email, Khumalo stressed that all employees in the Finance Department have been trained in the department’s protocols. Measures were taken before the Dec. 5 Select Board meeting to address the error, he noted, and nothing like this has happened in the department before, to his knowledge.

The existing protocol stating that “[a]ll invoices submitted by boards and committees must be accompanied by documentation indicating that its payment has been approved by the board/committee,” and that policy “has been reinforced” since this incident, according to Khumalo.

Stated Khumalo: “The process for verifying invoices received from boards and committees is: The committee has to fill out a request for payment form. This will be filled out with the required amount of signatures by your board and this will act as a cover sheet for the invoices. They have to submit itemized receipts, Proof of payment and include a copy of the minutes where the board voted to pay these reimbursements.”

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