AYER - "You and Sue win again," wrote Jeremy Callahan in his March 27 letter of resignation addressed to Planning Board chairman Mark Fermanian. "I have had enough."
Callahan resigned from the board a day after being informed by the Massachusetts ACLU that it would not represent him in appealing a harassment prevention order obtained against him by Planning Board secretary Susan Sullivan. The order bars Callahan from entering the third floor offices at Town Hall where the Planning Board office is located. Callahan must stay away from Sullivan within the building except at Planning Board meetings.
"It was the last straw, absolutely," said Callahan. Callahan has since learned that the ACLUM championed the creation of the 2010 harassment prevention law which offers the same protections as domestic restraining orders for those not otherwise in domestic relationships.
"I've got a lot of support, especially since I've resigned" said Callahan. "But I needed the support of the Planning Board and I didn't get it."
Outside of board meetings, Callahan said hasn't talked with Fermanian. "He just shut me off. I don't know what his thinking was, but, as far as the Planning Board is concerned, it seems he's perfectly happy with what's going on."
Actually, Callahan said there were two "last" straws - both relating to Sullivan and meeting minutes.
MINUTE BY MINUTE
Minutes needn't be word-for-word transcriptions of meetings. Required by the Open Meeting Law, meeting minutes must, however, include descriptions of discussions and board votes occurring during board meetings.
Upon his election in April 2011, Callahan sought copies 2009 and 2010 meeting minutes, which were missing from the town's website. Callahan expressed concern with the lapse in light of a series of proposed zoning bylaw changes which were headed for voter consideration the 2011 Fall Town Meeting.
On Sept. 21, Sullivan complained to the police that Callahan visited her office and banged on her desk, demanding the minutes. Later that day, 8 months worth of 2011 meeting minutes were posted on line, but none still from 2009 and 2010.
Callahan made a formal record request on Sept. 24, which requires the release of the records within 10 days. On Oct. 5 - the day before a hearing over the bylaw changes - Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand informed Callahan that the 2009 and 2010 minutes were available for pick up at his office - upon payment of a $53 copying fee.
Callahan paid the fee and received the documents. Following community outcry, Callahan was refunded his money.
Pontbriand, Fermanian and Sullivan pointed fingers at one another over how the fee grew to $53. Such simple document requests are generally fulfilled immediately and for free.
Sullivan obtained a harassment prevention order against Callahan in Leominster District Court (the city in which she lives) in November 2011. Sullivan produced a document for the judge, purporting to be a letter sent by Fermanian to Callahan warning Callahan to stay out of the Planning Board office.
Later, it was determined that Fermanian had never sent the letter to Callahan. The draft letter was prepared by Pontbriand and sent through Sullivan for Fermanian's review.
When asked how Sullivan could have presented the letter in court, the finger pointing between the three (Sullivan, Fermanian and Pontbriand) broke out again.
Sullivan sought and was granted a one year extension of the harassment prevention order this winter. Sullivan filed a grievance over the town's initial refusal to notify Town Hall employees of the harassment prevention order. The grievance settled on Sept. 11, 2012 when the selectmen agreed to post a copy of order in Town Hall.
LAND SALE FAIL
Callahan said the final straw was a botched deal for the town to buy 8.9 acres of land at 217 West Main Street. The asking price was $1.
After consultation with DPW Supt. Mark Wetzel, landowner Phil Berry made the offer to the Planning Board at its Aug. 2 meeting. The town already has an easement across a portion of the land for a water lift station which the DPW hopes to expand.
Upon review of the videotape (visible on the town's web site at www.ayer.ma.us), the Planning Board unanimously recommended the purchase.
Fermanian assured Berry "We will send a letter to the Board of Selectmen telling them that we would love to purchase you land for a dollar."
However, the letter was never sent. The offer was not presented to voters at the first following Town Meeting held in October 2012.
"The Board of Selectmen, myself and Ms. Lewis [selectmen secretary Janet Lewis] had no knowledge of this issue until Mr. Berry came to see me on Oct. 22, 2012 - the day of Fall Town Meeting - asking why his warrant article for the sale of land was not on the warrant," said Pontbriand. "I was surprised and did not know what he was talking about."
The selectmen hadn't received "any notice, letter, or communication from the Planning Board or Mr. Berry regarding this matter and/or requesting that this matter be placed on the Fall 2012 Special Town Meeting Warrant," said Pontbriand.
Pontbriand said he "did apologize and explain to him [Berry} that the town would definitely be interested in this land." Pontbriand also explained that, pending selectmen inclusion of the offer on the warrant, the offer could go before voters at the May 2013 Annual Town Meeting.
However, in late January Berry "informed me that he was withdrawing his offer to sell the land to the town at this time," said Pontbriand.
"The Planning Board unanimously approved of his land donation," said Callahan. "The board stated that it would send a letter to the selectmen, memorializing its support for the land sale. This letter was never sent."
Fermanian said the entire board - Callahan included - approved the Aug. meeting minutes in September, "It must have been human error on all our parts as to why the discussion was not included."
But Fermanian denied the board was to blame for the botched deal - despite the videotape showing he told Berry that - in one way or another- the board would alert the selectmen to the offer.
"My recollection of the discussion with Mr. Berry was that we were all in favor of, and grateful of, the gift and we voted to 'support' it," said Fermanian. "However, it is not the duty of the Planning Board to put it on the warrant. We told him to go to the BOS and present it to them."
"JUST CHECK THE VIDEO"
"Let's just cut to the chase here," said Callahan in a Feb. 8 email to Fermanian. "If Sue decided the land donation by Phil Berry was not worthy of follow up by letter, as you directed, or in the minutes, as is her job, she needs to tell us why this was her decision."
"If someone else directed her to disregard this donation, we need to know who this was and why she followed this direction," said Callahan.
At the March 14 Planning Board meeting, Callahan pressed for corrections to the Aug. minutes. "I said 'just check the video," said Callahan. "The video's clear."
"Mark's her boss. The buck's got to stop somewhere," said Callahan. "Who knows what the record will say."
"The Phil Berry thing just boggles the mind," said Callahan. "The political part of this has been very stressful for me- the aggravation - to the point that when I'm in the heat of these arguments, I'm thinking about it when I go to bed and it's still on my mind when I wake."
Callahan wished he'd appealed the harassment prevention order but says he cannot afford the expense and had hoped for the ACLU's assistance with the matter.
Callahan's resignation leaves the five member board with three active members. A joint vote of the selectmen and Planning Board could fill the vacancy caused by Callahan's resignation. Callahan remains aboard the town's Green Community Committee. He doesn't rule out a run for elected office in the future.
"A sad day for the Governance of Ayer," said selectmen Chair Jim Fay in an email to the Planning Board upon learning of Callahan's resignation. "We need to be more professional and understanding of one another as the streets of Ayer are becoming littered with disillusioned former members of Ayer Town Government," said Fay. "All the good people I voted for on the Planning Board resigned. I need to think long and hard next election."
Those interested in seeking the seat vacated by Callahan should send letters of interest to Fermanian at firstname.lastname@example.org and Pontbriand at email@example.com. Morris Babcock runs unopposed in the race for another Planning Board vacancy at the April 30 Town Election.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.