At Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting, Cindy Johnston was hired as the town’s senior accounting manager, filling a void in the Finance Department that has been understaffed over the past several months.
Questions about the hire arose based on news reports out of Rhode Island, where Johnston had been fired from her most recent position as the finance director of Woonsocket,. This raised questions about the town’s vetting practices and the transparency of the applicant during her interview process.
In an email Wednesday night, Town Manager Norman Khumalo explained that the hiring process was thorough and that Johnston did raise the issue of being fired during her interview.
“I’d like you to know that the Town of Hopkinton hired Cindy Johnston after a thorough interview and screening process,” Khumalo stated. “She was honest and forthcoming throughout the process, and we are looking forward to Cindy’s work in Hopkinton, as we are very confident in her skills and qualifications.”
Stressed Khumalo: “We raised this issue when we made our offer and with her references.”
In an interview with Khumalo earlier Wednesday, the Independent raised the issue of Johnston’s termination by interim Woonsocket Mayor Christopher Beauchamp, According to reports out of Woonsocket, Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt resigned in November, apparently prompted by an Oct. 25 report on WPRI-TV CBS 12 referenced in a post on the Providence Business News website. The WPRI-TV investigation showed that Baldelli-Hunt made a deal with a former business associate in which she directed more than $1 million in city-controlled federal funds to be used to purchase 5 acres of vacant land off Mendon Road. The City Council apparently was unaware of the deal until it was closed, which violated the city’s charter. The city’s solicitor quickly reversed the deal.
Woosocket councilor Brian Thompson said in a Nov. 14 article in the Valley Breeze that he felt Johnston, questioned during a City Council meeting, was intentionally hiding information.
“[H]er answers during the special meeting [in early November] demonstrated a lack of leadership and a failure to protect the finances of the people we serve,” he said.
“The city of Woonsocket deserves a finance director who is dedicated to upholding the highest standards of integrity, transparency and accountability. We cannot afford to have someone in this crucial position who disregards their responsibilities and makes excuses for their shortcomings,” Thompson added.
Former Woonsocket councilor Jim Cournoyer also wrote in an email to then-incoming Mayor Chris Beauchamp that Johnston should be fired.
“It seems obvious that Ms. Johnston failed to exercise her most basic responsibilities and duties,” Cournoyer stated.
However, Khumalo stated that Johnston was not involved in the mayor’s transaction and did not sign any checks related to it — despite the Valley Breeze article stating that she “cut the check for the property.”
“As discussed, she was transparent throughout the selection process regarding how she left Woonsocket,” Khumalo wrote in his email. “We raised this issue when we made our offer and with her references.”
During the Select Board meeting, Khumalo noted that her references described her as “always approachable, a hard worker and fair.”
In an emailed statement Friday morning, Johnston clarified the circumstances presented in previous reports about the land transaction and her involvement in it.
“After a two-year process, which did not involve the finance team, the land purchase and sales agreement was executed through the City of Woonsocket’s Department of Planning & Development,” she stated. “Four months into my tenure as finance director, my office received a payment invoice voucher for processing. The payment voucher met the Finance Department’s standards for processing.
“I was unaware that this project was in question and presumed that the City of Woonsocket’s Department of Planning & Development had met all federal and local requirements. While I processed the payment invoice voucher, I did not sign the check, nor did I release it to the vendor. In hindsight, I recognize that stronger diligence could have been exercised. I was forthcoming and transparent during my interview with the Town of Hopkinton. I am fortunate and excited to join the Town of Hopkinton and the accounting team.”
Select Board chair Muriel Kramer responded Thursday morning to the Independent’s information request about the town’s hiring and vetting process and how it was applied in this case. She stressed that she has “complete confidence” in the town’s hiring process, which included an interview process after the candidate pool was narrowed.
“I of course was not part of the hiring process, but I have complete confidence in all who were and in the process itself,” Kramer stated. “I have been through the interviewing process myself as an interviewer for the town and can assure residents that we are very well served by those that vet potential hires to join the team here.
“Interviews are professional and comprehensive; references are of course checked and considered in the decisions,” she continued. “We of course consider a person’s past employment and reasons for leaving.”
She noted that the media inquiries were prompted by a Google search of Johnston’s name.
“In this case I was told in advance to expect news coverage,” Kramer wrote in the email. “Now it is my hope and expectation that residents reading this will recognize that Google searches can’t tell us all we need to know about anything, but especially not about people.”
Added Kramer: “We have confidence in Ms. Johnston and welcome her to the team.”
During her Select Board appearance, Johnston spoke in a compelling way about how she rose through the ranks in the Woonsocket Finance Department over her 29 years there. She began her career in October 1994 at the executive secretary of the city’s Office of Planning & Development, where she assisted in the planning, funding and management of multiple city projects.
“I’m one of those people who literally started at the bottom,” she explained. “I started at entry level and just kept getting promotions.”
Johnston decided to return to college in 2001 to finish her accounting degree, which she completed in 2008. Her degree propelled her acceleration through different positions in the Finance Department, she said.
During her tenure, she said she implemented a new general accounting system and credit card processing in the city’s treasury department.