TOWNSEND -- Town officials meeting at a special work session on the evening of July 7, failed to find common ground in a dispute among members of the Conservation Commission.
"I don't think this meeting helped at all," said an exasperated Karen Chapman, chairwoman of the Conservation Commission. "This is how all our meetings go."
Chapman spoke near the end of the session in which selectmen met jointly with the ConsCom in an effort to iron out differences among commissioners regarding the appointment of new members needed to fill a pair of vacancies.
According to Chapman, the whole thing began last September when commission member Mary Small decided to take a leave of absence for personal reasons. At the time, the ConsCom had been conducting a search for two new members with one interested party, Steve Marshall, having been told to attend meetings to acquire experience he lacked in conservation issues.
The conflict began when Emily Norton and Veronica Kell, each perceived to have more pertinent experience than Marshall, came forward and the commission decided to appoint them instead.
For those votes, Small returned to the commission after a year's absence to participate.
It was that sudden reappearance that touched off protests from commissioners James Deroian and John Hussey who, under the impression that she had resigned from the commission, expressed suspicion at Small's timely return.
Protests against the recommendations for appointment were sent to selectmen, prompting Monday's joint meeting in hopes of settling their differences.
It did not make sense that an applicant can come to seven months of meetings in order to better qualify him for membership while others are "just shooed right in" with no delay, said Deroian. "That bothered me greatly."
Hinting that some members of the commission were "uncomfortable" with other applicants than the two chosen, Deroian believed at the time that Small had submitted a letter of resignation to the town clerk and so was ineligible to vote on the appointments.
"Anyone who stays away for six months to a year doesn't show the commission much respect," remarked Hussey.
Small denied submitting such a letter and was supported by board member Colin McNabb that without such a letter, she would still be a legal member of the commission even after a year's absence.
Those members defending the votes for the two applicants including Chapman, Small, and Jennifer Pettit defended their choice of Norton and Kell on grounds of their having more experience than the other candidates.
Marshall, said Hussey, had been led down the path that if he gained more experience by attending meetings and going to classes, he would be appointed.
"If we don't support Mr. Marshall, it would be a black eye to the commission," said Hussey.
Marshall complained that he was told that to join the commission, experience did not matter... until other candidates became available, then all of a sudden experience did matter. Adding insult to injury, when it came time to vote on applicants, the long missing Small showed up just in time to participate.
Referring to Small's claim that a heavy workload prevented her from attending regular meetings, Deroian said that was no excuse as he was busy as well yet he managed to keep up.
"The message I got was to stay on the board," Small said of her choosing not to resign. "I did not realize my staying would cause any problems."
"Mary is still a member in good standing of the Conservation Commission," insisted McNabb. "We need to get beyond this."
Pettit accused Hussey of trying to "load the board," a charge hotly denied by Hussey.
"This board has been the most difficult to work with," said former consultant Michael Turgeon, going on to charge the commission with being dilatory in their responsibilities, including approving and releasing minutes of its meetings and the number of applications they hear.
Turgeon also complained about the "arbitrary, inconsistent way" the commission chose to enforce the bylaw. "It's all part and parcel of choosing what they want to hear."
"It's a problem of professionalism," countered Small, suggesting there was sexism and an "old boy" network going on.
"It's not unusual to have factions within the commission," said Town Administrator Andrew Sheehan, who possessed experience as a conservation agent as well as having been a member of the Acton ConsCom. "Both sides are trying to stack the commission and neither side is wrong. At this time, however, things are at the point where they're impeding the function of the commission. Somehow, the commission has to find a way to accept each others' warts and work together. The situation now is not conducive to progress."
"You need to stop assigning blame, compromise and move forward," urged board member Carolyn Smart of the bickering. "We're all adults here and we're all passionate about conservation."
Seeing that little progress had been made, McNabb drew the meeting to a close suggesting that selectmen would convene in early August hopefully to come up with a compromise solution to the appointment question.
"What's needed is better communication," concluded Smart. "This is not a commission issue, it's a human issue."