AYER -- Selectmen recessed briefly in the opening moments of Tuesday night's meeting in apparent spontaneous protest over comments uttered by Selectman Frank Maxant. Chairman Jim Fay led the charge, and was followed by his colleagues.
The flap was instigated two weeks earlier when, during the Feb. 5 board meeting, Maxant went on a tirade against Ayer American Legion Post 139. Maxant, a Navy veteran, claimed the group displayed "social cowardice" in shunning Maxant's friend and former housemate Benjamin Franklin Pierce, who is both a Marine veteran and a Level 3 sex offender. Pierce now lives in Arkansas.
On that night, Maxant ripped up a certificate the Ayer American Legion gave each selectman for their participation in the town's 2012 Ayer Memorial Day Parade. Over the past two weeks, Ayer American Legion Post 139 Commander Betty Ann Matozel had reserved public comment over Maxant's actions and words until Tuesday night. Fay, who is a 15-year member of Ayer American Legion post, saved the opening spot on the night's agenda for Matozel's rebuttal.
Matozel strode to the table to speak. A dozen uniformed American Legion members from both the Ayer and Shirley Posts, including Shirley American Legion Post 183 Commander Charles Church, were on hand in a show of support.
Reading from a prepared statement, Matozel said she would only read the statement and would not entertain any questions. Matozel briefly laid out four declarations.
First, Matozel said Pierce never submitted an application to become a member of the Ayer American Legion.
Third, Matozel stated, "At no time did the individual, Benjamin Franklin Pierce, attend as a guest at a meeting of American Legion Post 139." Finally, and in contradiction to claims Pierce made to Nashoba Publishing last week, Matozel said, "At no time did I ever meet with, correspond with, or speak with Benjamin Franklin Pierce at any time about any subject." Pierce asserted that Matozel and another post officer had personally shunned his inquiry about joining the post.
Matozel thanked the selectmen for the opportunity to speak and left the table. Fay chided Maxant, stating that a selectman "owes it to the community to have their facts straight" before talking about any group or organization "of this stature" during a board meeting. Fay advised his fellow selectmen to steer clear of such "commentary" during board meetings.
"As long as I'm chairman," Fay said he'd keep open the public's opportunity to be heard on the controversy, especially "as I receive more and more emails" relating to Maxant's stance.
"I think it is inherently wrong and most inappropriate for a selectman to pursue his personal ideals in the forum of the board of selectmen," said Fay. "It's one thing to go out and shake a stick on the sidewalk and say 'I believe in this, that and the other thing.'"
"(But) it's another to foster what apparently, by some newspaper accounts, was the position of the Board of Selectmen," said Fay. "I emphatically can tell you, as your chair, that is not the position of the Board of Selectmen."
"I want to thank you for the certificate," said Selectman Gary Luca to Matozel. "I appreciate it and we enjoy marching."
"In all your years in uniform, you fought for Mr. Maxant's (right to make a) statement because that's freedom of speech and that's what we're here for," said Luca. "That's what you went to war for."
But Luca said board meetings aren't "the time or place" for such commentary. "Make a statement on your own, away from this venue if you want to, that's fine," said Luca to Maxant. "But to bring this board into it ... again, this board does not support the actions of one selectman."
"It was pretty appalling, what happened," said Luca. "And I apologize for the rest of the board to you."
"I raised my hand," said Hugh Ernisse, Maxant's landlord. Ernisse has previously caused debate by stating he welcomed sex offenders and drug addicts to live in his homes.
Ernisse sat in the front row and kept his hand raised over his head. Fay never called on Ernisse to be heard.
"I must respond," said Maxant. "The American Legion stands for a lot of very good things that makes the country the way it is -- some of the best things. And this town exemplifies those things most of the time."
Maxant said many live by the golden rules of "do unto others as you would have others do unto you" and "love your neighbor as you love yourself."
"But there was a period of time -- and I'm speaking now as a public official commenting on our town's society -- and I think this is an appropriate forum for that ..." said Maxant. "There was a time when Mr. Pierce was in town when we got caught up in an atmosphere of viciousness, of character assassination, of slander, of piling on and kicking someone when he was down. That is not what the American Legion is all about ..."
Truncating Maxant's fresh tirade, Fay called for the meeting to "recess." Fay stood and left the room, followed by his fellow selectmen. "I'm not going to sit and listen to that, Frank," said Fay.
Applause broke out as Fay, Luca, selectmen Pauline Conley and Christopher Hillman got up from their seats and left the meeting room. Ayer Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand and board secretary Janet Lewis likewise left the room.
Seated at the table alone, Maxant shrugged and said to no one in particular, "That's the end of my notes."
About two minutes later, Fay re-entered the room and asked the board to reconvene. The board pushed forward with its otherwise full agenda.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.