AYER - On a 4-1 vote, the Ayer Board of Selectmen stripped selectman Frank Maxant of the Vice Chair title he's held since last April. The move comes eight weeks before Maxant's current three year term on the board is to expire.
Maxant is in a four way race for one selectmen seat; Election Day is Tuesday, April 30.
Maxant alone opposed the move. Chair Jim Fay made the motion following Maxant's Sunday afternoon email to the Attorney General's Office asking if the state could 'head off at the pass' a planned Tuesday night closed door meeting of the board that Maxant believed would violate the Open Meeting Law (OML).
Maxant copied his email to Nashoba Publishing, his landlord Hugh Ernisse (a landlord targeted by the board for enforcement actions on his two Ayer properties), and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. The email was titled "9 mo. [months] later, another attempt at OML violation AND Elder Abuse in Ayer."
"I would have thought that the pendency of my OML complaint with regard to our Ayer Board of Selectmen's executive session of June 5, 2012 would inspire some caution in our Chair and my colleagues," wrote Maxant. "But our agenda for Tuesday March 5, exactly nine months later, shows this was a forlorn hope."
Maxant complained to the state over last June's closed door meeting with Building Inspector Gabe Vellante over several targeted properties. Part way through the meeting, Maxant alleged that the threshold for a closed door meeting to discuss "litigation strategy" against the property owners hadn't been met. Despite his participation in the meeting, Maxant filed a complaint against the whole board, claiming the discussion should have been conducted in open session.
In Sunday's email, Maxant said the board was again planning to discuss "the same seemingly 'easy targets' as before, plus one."
"My colleagues' intent is to scheme ways to deny these targets the quiet enjoyment of their properties. The motivation is some neighbors' opinions about the properties' appearance," said Maxant. "The new target is a farmer in his 70's operating a pig farm alone, with a new housing development on the hillside above."
Maxant again alleged the threshold for a closed door discussion had not been met since "There is no litigation extant, pending, or threatened. The reason for trying executive session is, I believe, the same as in June --to shield the Board from public scrutiny of our scheming."
Maxant also asked "Do you have a way to head this off at the pass? To me, preventing it is preferable to complaining about it after the fact."
Maxant said he'd tried complaining about the agenda item to his peers on Friday and "received only a hostile response from our newest selectman." In signing off the email, Maxant used the title of "Vice-Chair, Ayer Board of Selectmen."
Maxant blanketed board members with a Friday afternoon email, stating "Here we go again! There can be no X-session discussion of litigation strategy before there is any litigation! This is just another attempt to avoid public scrutiny of our determination to deny people their rights."
Christopher Hillman, the board's newest selectmen elected in 2012, unleashed on Maxant via email Saturday evening. "The only public scrutiny is from you! It only seems to be a problem when we are talking about your boyfriend [Hugh] Ernisse," said Hillman.
"Let's do it in open session. Why not - you will violate the executive session anyways as you did with the King case!" said Hillman.
During a January selectmen's meeting, Maxant alleged that town counsel had advised the board in executive session that the town's new sex offender residency restricting bylaw is unconstitutional. The other four selectmen denied that town counsel said the bylaw is unconstitutional.
Despite authorization from Fay, town counsel refused to comment on what was said in executive session. Though the opportunity to appeal has passed, the board has refused to release the minutes of their closed door meetings with counsel regarding the civil rights action brought by Level 3 sex offender John King against the town and Police Chief William Murray.
"Don't try to deny it, but none of the details were finalized or made public, yet you felt it necessary to say the attorney said it was unconstitutional! Unbelievable!" blasted Hillman. "I should and still may file a complaint about you violating executive session concerning a case that had huge ramifications to the town and the police chief!"
"I will insist that from now on you recuse yourself from any discussions regarding your landlord, and apparent BFF!" wrote Hillman. "It is a conflict of interest and it's amazing we have let it go on this long! Who do you represent again?"
Hillman encouraged Maxant to invite all the property owners to Tuesday's board meeting "and tell them to bring their A-game because you have not even come close to seeing mine!"
In the end, an alleged scheduling conflict for town counsel prevented the closed door session over targeted properties on Tuesday night.
Fay suggested that Maxant's use of his Vice Chair title in complaining to the Attorney General's Office violated the board's policy that members "should not make any representation to anyone on behalf of the board unless and until the board takes an official position on the matter."
Fay also alleged Maxant violated another selectmen policy to "uphold the intent of executive session and respect the privileged communication that exists in executive session." Fay claimed Maxant has "shown himself to be unworthy of the position of Vice Chairman."
Fay claimed Maxant's June 2012 complaint was found to be baseless. Maxant said that was untrue, claiming there has been no determination yet made on his 2012 complaint.
Maxant maintained that he was within his right to use the Vice Chairman signature and that it was clear to any recipient that he was complaining to the state in his individual capacity as a selectman and not on behalf of the collective Ayer Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Pauline Conley said she was "offended" by Maxant's claim that the board had a mal intent to meet behind closed doors and victimize senior citizen property owners. After the successful vote to remove Maxant as Vice Chair, Fay sought a nomination for a new Vice Chair.
Maxant nominated Conley who accepted. The motion passed unanimously. The role of Clerk was likewise transferred from Conley to Hillman.
The roles are voted annually by the selectmen when the board reorganizes following each Town Election.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.