AYER - Dozens of Ayer employees and officials swarmed the selectmen's meeting room Thursday night in a show of force for Ayer Police Chief William Murray was the subject of a closed door board meeting regarding 9 selectmen-initiated "complaints" against Ayer's top cop.
The audience was packed with town employees, officials and department heads, including the Treasurer, Fire Chief, DPW Supt., Building Commissioner, Town Accountant, Assessors administrator, Town Moderator, Council on Aging Director, the Police Lieutenant, patrolmen and fire fighters. Many expressed support for Murray.
As required by the Open Meeting Law, the board first convened in open session. Chairman Jim Fay cited the separate exemptions the board would rely upon to legally discuss matters under so-called 'executive session' cover.
First, the board was to consider "complaints against a public officer." Fay asserted that Exemption #1 of the Open Meeting Law applied to the closed door discussion.
Second the board was to review department head evaluations. Fay said that Exemption #2 of the Open Meeting Law applied to that second closed door matter.
Fay acknowledged that Murray retained the right under the law to open the board's discussion over the complaint to the public, since Murray is the subject of the alleged complaints. Fay then read aloud from a prepared statement, stating the purpose of the closed door meeting was "based on performance and improvement measures the board would like to make.
"It is the role of management to give employees every opportunity to succeed in their position," said Fay. "We want this forum to be professional and achieve those ends."
"This meeting is not to be thought of as - quote - a disciplinary hearing," said Fay. "Exemption #1 is the only one that we can use to do that, and regrettably the word 'complaints' is in that language."
"This is actually a performance measure in terms of the board being able to talk to its employee," said Fay. "Its the only option we have, if you will, under Exemption 1"
Fay said Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand advised Murray of the Open Meeting Law process and "inform the chief that we needed to speak to him on certain areas of performance under his management."
"With that the option is given, with a 48 hour notice, for the chief to exercise his right, as is his right, to go into executive session," said Fay. "Chief, do you chose to go into executive session?"
"I am his counsel," said Murray's attorney, John Vigliotti of Worcester, who is affiliated with the Massachusetts Police Association's Legal Defense Fund.
"You can advise him if you so chose," said Fay. "But I'm speaking to the chief now."
"On advice, I can't vote that you go into executive session," said Murray. "My understanding is that I have to wait for you to go into executive session first before I can exercise that right."
"Chief, since you are the subject of the executive session, you are the only person who can allow it to be in open session. It is entirely your choice," said selectman Pauline Conley. "I would say to you, as a resident and as a member of this board, I would like to see you do it in open session."
"Mr. Chair, until I'm really clear on what this meeting is about, I'd prefer this be in closed session," said Murray.
Selectmen Frank Maxant and Christopher Hillman respectively moved and seconded a motion to enter closed door session. "How do we intend to proceed if the chief chooses to have this in open session after we discuss with him whatever it is we're going to discuss with him," asked Conley.
"We'll entertain that when he chooses to do that," answered Fay.
"And if we chose not to go into open session despite the chief's request, then what?" asked Conley.
"Oh I don't think we'd do that," said Fay.
"Before we vote on this motion, based on our conversation earlier this evening, I would simply like the open session record to reflect that I do not agree that this was properly posted as an executive session," said Conley. "I do not agree that the matter we are about to discuss with the chief as I have been explained within the last 15 minutes is appropriate for executive session, and I will participate only because I do not want to not know what has happened and I have that right as a member of this board."
"I do not agree, as I have explained to you, and I will object and not support the motion for executive session," said Conley. "I would encourage any member of this board who feels that way to also not vote for executive session."
"Well that's interesting because we do have nine complaints which I cannot address in open session but I will address in executive session," said Fay.
"The nine items I was shown a few moments ago are not complaints but elements and issues relating to performance which I understand were incorporated in the chief's department head evaluation prepared by Mr. Pontbriand which I have never seen," said Conley.
Nashoba Publishing asked Pontbriand if Murray's evaluation had been shared with all board members. Pontbriand has not responded as of Friday night.
"Again, that's a matter of your interpretation," said Fay. "I received these and was told they were complaints. I don't want to debate the issue."
"That's fine," said Conley. "May I ask in open session, for the record, from whom those complaints were received because I've yet to know that."
"Robert tells me they were received from members of the board," said Fay.
"For the record, I have not made complaints against the chief with respect to the nine items on that list," said Conley. Hillman shook his head but did not comment. Later asked if he had filed complaints against Murray, Hillman said, "out of respect to executive session and to Chief Murray, I feel it's not appropriate to comment on anything that transpired this evening at this time."
Also after the meeting, Maxant said to Nashoba Publishing that he'd left a voice mail message with Murray earlier in the day to state that he, likewise, was not one of the complaining selectmen.
Neither Fay or selectman Gary Luca, who did not attend the closed door meeting regarding Murray, immediately answered Nashoba Publishing's request for comment as to what complaints, if any, either had lodged over Murray's performance.
Conley dissented in the 3-1 vote to enter executive session. Maxant said he'd vote to enter executive session as a "proxy" for Murray's stated wish to hear the complaints against him behind closed doors.
The audience cleared the room, leaving the selectmen, Murray and his attorney. Thirty minutes later, Murray and Vigliotti emerged to employee cheers.
"It's our opinion the chief has done nothing wrong," said Vigliotti.
"I can't discuss what went on in executive session obviously but I don't feel that there was any actual, what I would consider, 'complaints' against the chief - that's my opinion," said Vigliotti. "As a result, I think he'll be able to move forward from this and continue to do the good work that he's done for the town of Ayer."
Murray is in the midst of a three year contract with the town which is due to expire in 2014. Murray's salary was reflected at just under $91,000 in the 2011 Town Report.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.