AYER -- Members of the Planning Board are taking a verbal stand against the decision at Town Meeting to cut their entire budget.
Morris Babcock, board chair, said the vote on Town Meeting floor was an uninformed decision.
"It was a decision made by people who aren't aware of the legal requirements of us maintaining a Zoning Board and a Planning Board," he said.
The decision to eliminate funding for the Planning and Zoning boards came as a motion from former selectman Carolyn McCreary, who tried to talk about the administration of both boards before being interrupted and told not to talk about individuals.
McCreary ultimately argued that the boards are not serving the town well.
Susan Tordella spoke in favor of the motion, and Robert Williams argued that he lost two days of work because of improper paperwork from the Zoning Board.
The votes were too close to call by ear, but a standing count found a vote of 54-20 to zero the ZBA budget and 51-18 to empty the Planning Board budget.
"I believe we got hijacked, honestly," Babcock said of the meeting.
The move eliminates the position of the administrator for both boards, currently Susan Sullivan.
Sullivan has a harassment prevention order against Jeremy Callahan. A former Planning Board member, Callahan was re-elected by 34 write-in votes this year, but cannot attend meetings because of the order, which forbids him from being within 10 yards of Sullivan.
Jim Lucchesi, a Planning Board member who resigned from the Zoning Board after the vote, said Town Meeting was stacked.
The whole move, Lucchesi said, was a "choreographed step" because of a "vindictive matter" between Callahan and Sullivan.
"We have these people throwing stones at glass windows because they know that nobody is inside to stop them from throwing them," he said.
Babcock said the board feels it was a small group -- and not the silent majority of the town -- that presented the information.
He does not think a volunteer would be capable of doing Sullivan's job, a suggestion made at Town Meeting.
"Unless they have the experience of running a Planning Board or a Zoning Board previously, they would not be able to do that job," he said. "They have to be knowledgeable of the law, the legal requirements, the ramifications of not following those laws -- it's not a position that can be replaced by a volunteer."
The members also disputed the claim that the board missed out on acquiring valuable property. The comment likely alluded to the offer by private landowner Phil Berry to sell a parcel of land to the town for $1. Selectmen never received a letter from the Planning Board recommending the purchase, The Public Spirit reported at the time.
Lucchesi said the board recommended the purchase, but the offer was supposed to go through the Board of Selectmen. The landowner needed to go to selectmen and say that the Planning Board was in support of the idea, he said. In the end, the $1 offer was withdrawn.
Babcock stressed that Sullivan has not cost the town. "Jeremy Callahan has cost the town," he said. "He is the one who created the situation."
To be clear, Babcock added, he is not against Callahan or for or against Sullivan.
"I don't know Jeremy from Joe -- I never personally met him. If I have, I don't remember him," he said. "I want to make very clear that I have no agenda towards Jeremy. My agenda is the town of Ayer, and that's it."
But Babcock said he does have an issue with the suggestion of moving meetings someplace outside of Town Hall so that Callahan can attend.
It's unfortunate, said Babcock, that someone wants to come in and do work for the town but cannot due to a situation "he created for himself."
The problem is not one for the Planning and Zoning boards, but for Callahan, he said.
"I'm sorry, we're just going to throw away this person who's in there every day, day after day, coordinating, organizing, providing this information to us so that somebody else can sit in at a meeting for her?" he asked. "I'm sorry, it's unacceptable."
Sullivan's husband, Bruce, argued that his wife has had stellar job performance reviews and has spent her whole adult life volunteering for the town.
"This is just a smokescreen to try to blame the victim, get her removed, so that he can step back in, as far as I can see," he said.
Sullivan herself said she has had people come in and tell her the whole move was a witch hunt.
Callahan and Sullivan initially had a confrontation over meeting minutes from 2009 and 2010 that were not posted online at the time, The Public Spirit reported earlier.
Lucchesi said if the initial request for the minutes was put forth in a civilized fashion, it probably would have been taken care of in the same manner.
"But when it's put forth in an aggressive fashion, and a threatening fashion, you cause the person you're dealing with to come into a defensive mode, a protective mode," he said.
Regarding the comment that no one is in the office during office hours, Sullivan explained that she only works 30 hours a week. If she has meetings, she said, she has compensatory time off.
"There's a lot of offices in that building that people complain nobody's sitting at them, yet at Town Meeting they don't want to up the budget to pay for people to sit in there full-time," she said. "Yet they want us at their beck and call, and it just doesn't work."
"We don't see anybody stepping up to the plate, but they'll stand there and throw their stones," Lucchesi said.
Babcock said the boards welcome constructive criticism. He urged people with questions to send a communication to the clerk's office and he will respond.
"We want to know how to improve ourselves, but this is not the way to improve ourselves," he said. "This is doing nothing but creating a distraction for the town."
Babcock said the board is actively investigating what the next step might be. According to information the board has, the now unfunded position is mandated by the state, he said.
"There's no way to eliminate the position, we have to find the money in the budget for it somewhere," he said. "And it can't be replaced by a volunteer, it's a union job."
Bruce Sullivan said one thing needs to stop.
"The silent majority, the people who didn't show up to the meeting, they need to stand up," he said. "They need to stand up and do the right thing and protect the person who is serving them, and not the perpetrator."
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