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Burns: union head may be unfocused

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Brenda M. Harwood handles the finances and record-keeping of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, and also serves as president of the city employees' bargaining unit.

But just as an external audit has begun to try to determine why the department's records are in disarray, one City Council member wonders whether Mrs. Harwood is spending too much time on union activities and not enough time on her job as the department's senior account clerk typist.

"That's one of the questions I have that needs to be answered," Councilwoman Roxanne M. Burns said, after learning about the department's problematic bookkeeping practices, which includes tens of thousands of dollars being owed to the city, failure to cash checks from program participants and failure to mail invoices in a timely manner.

Contacted in their small offices at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds Wednesday afternoon, both Mrs. Harwood and her boss, Superintendent of Parks and Recreation Jayme M. St. Croix, said they were surprised by Ms. Burns's concerns.

Mr. St. Croix insisted that Mrs. Harwood works on union activities only when it's warranted.

"As union president, I have the right to represent the members, and I work in the confines of the contract," she said.

Mrs. Harwood is allowed to serve a maximum of two hours a week on union business while she's on the job, as specified in the employees' contract.

Mrs. Harwood, who has worked in the department since the late 1980s, has served as president of City of Watertown Unit 7151, Civil Services Employees Association for many years, City Manager Mary M. Corriveau said.

It's up to Mr. St. Croix to keep track how much union activity goes on during business hours, said Eugene P. Hayes, superintendent of the Department of Public Works, who oversees Mr. St. Croix.

He and Mrs. Corriveau have asked Mr. St. Croix on several occasions about the issue and have stressed that he needs to keep tabs on the time, Mr. Hayes said.

In recent weeks, Ms. Burns has asked about billing and collection procedures after council members learned the Watertown Wizards collegiate summer baseball team had $33,000 in outstanding bills that dated back to 2008. Since then, they found out the Wizards owed an additional $13,803.10 for a total of $46,803.10. All of the Wizards' back bills have been paid, but other accounting problems and outstanding bills have also surfaced.

The DPW's office manager and the city comptroller's office staff are working with the Recreation Department to sort the problems out, Mr. Hayes said, noting the efforts will continue from now on.

"I don't think that they did anything dishonest," Mr. Hayes said. "Is that department disorganized? Yes, it is, and we're working on correcting that."

Council members also are in the process of retaining the city's external auditor, the local accounting firm of Poulsen & Podvin, to conduct an internal control audit on the Parks Department. They want to find out what happened, the extent of the problems and how they can be prevented.

Mrs. Corriveau and Comptroller James E. Mills met Wednesday with firm representatives to iron out the details of the audit.

As the senior account clerk typist, Mrs. Harwood is responsible for "independent performance of financial account and record-keeping tasks," according to the city's job description for the position. The tasks include: reviewing complex financial documents, classifying them and posting them into accounts; tracking audits monitoring and reconciling accounts; contacting clients, vendors and other agencies to obtain additional information, and filing a variety of control records and reports. The clerk also handles financial transactions with the public and conducts scheduling of all parks and recreation facilities. She earns an annual salary of $38,017.

On Wednesday, the outer office where Mrs. Harwood sits at her desk remained in disarray, but staff from the comptroller's office and DPW were there again to help.

Almost hidden on her cluttered desk sat a small plaque reading, "Please don't straighten out my desk ... you'll confuse me and screw up my world."

In defending his department, Mr. St. Croix said Wednesday the office is generally busy, but especially during the summer.

Looking at old phone logs, he noted the office received 8,023 calls from people wanting to know about its programs from May to September 2008.

"That's 77 calls a day and 10 an hour," he said. "We are two dedicated employees who provide services to anyone who comes through the door."

Mr. St. Croix oversees a department with a $163,269 budget that brings in $214,000 in revenues. Under the auspices of the Department of Public Works, the department runs such things as hockey and ice skating in the ice arena, summer playground activities and softball leagues and works with several organizations to bring concerts, events, shows and sporting events to the fairgrounds.

Two weeks ago, Mr. St. Croix said that he was aware that the department was lagging behind in keeping up with billing and other deficient accounting practices, but that it got worse when Mrs. Harwood was on medical leave for about six weeks this winter. He said he didn't know how bad the problems were until she got back to work.

"We're trying to catch up," he said. "I think we're making headway."

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