AYER -- A heated discussion about funding for the Planning Board came up at the selectmen's meeting Tuesday, when Planning Board members said the town must be able to fund them.
"I don't understand how you can unfund us, and if you're aware of the repercussions," said Planning Board member Rick Roper.
Based on his understanding of state law, Roper reasoned the Planning Board is allowed to hire clerical administrative help. There are plans before the board right now that, if not acted upon within 90 days, can go forward based on conditional approval, he said.
"We have no problem with our secretary and I don't think you guys have the authority to eliminate her," he said.
It was the first time the board came before selectmen since Town Meeting cut the Planning and Zoning board budgets to zero, eliminating the salary of Administrator Susan Sullivan.
Planning Board Chairman Morris Babcock argued that selectmen even voted to zero out that budget, "so I'd like to get some understanding there," he said.
Selectmen Chairman Christopher Hillman said he didn't appreciate the tone of the conversation, and argued that the vote was not an act of the selectmen.
"It was an act of Town Meeting and that's where it lays," he said.
Planning Board member Jim Lucchesi asked if Hillman voted to zero out the budget. Hillman said yes, while Selectmen Gary Luca said no and Jannice Livingston abstained.
Lucchesi argued that neither the Planning or Zoning boards are going to be able to perform without someone in the administrative office who is knowledgeable of state rules and regulations.
"You can't just grab any person off the street and say 'X-Y-Z' person is a volunteer and is going to do the job," he said.
Babcock asked selectmen to consider the situation.
"The laws clearly state we have to have a Planning Board in the town of Ayer," Babcock said. "And if you want that board to be effective we need to find the funding for this board."
Babcock also argued he had been trying to get in touch with Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand for two weeks. He said he made a few mistakes on a letter that he submitted, and as a result there are now two complaints against the committee.
"As a result of my inability to meet with our town administrator to ensure that I had the correct verbiage in our document, I now have to face the Attorney General," he said.
Pontbriand said that he did visit Babcock's restaurant across the street from Town Hall and sent him emails.
"I apologize publicly to Mr. Babcock that over the last couple of weeks I was not accessible at his convenience and I will try to rectify that," he said.
He also said Town Meeting did not violate any law and has the right to reduce the budget to zero.
Luca said what Town Meeting decides is what it decides.
"That's the venue we have here," he said.
Hillman said he felt the board was trying to hijack the meeting.
"We are in consultation with counsel, that's all I can say at this moment," he said, adding that there's no ill will.
Former selectman Pauline Conley also came before the board, taking issue with a statement from Selectman Gary Luca reported in the Public Spirit last week.
The statement, taken after the selectmen's meeting, read that he did not second her appointment to the Zoning Board of Appeals because of an ethics violation filed with the state.
Conley said she spoke to people at the state's ethics commission and found that there is no open violation, complaint or investigation.
"What I'd like to request of this board is an official apology and a retraction in the paper that there is no open ethics violation pending against me," she said.
Meanwhile, the dilemma with the commuter rail remains unresolved. The MBTA is currently in negotiations with private landowner Phil Berry over a feasible public-access route.
The federal funding of $3.2 million given through the Federal Transit Administration for the Ayer Rail Trail commuter parking lot is not in jeopardy of any sunset clause, he said.
But the issue now is that the FTA will not release the funds until there is a clear public access established from the parking lot to the station.
Pontbriand said the MBTA has tried to contact the attorney for private landowner over the last two weeks, but to no avail.
Town officials and others argue that Berry's deed to the land includes the requirement that he provide public easement so that commuters can reach the platform. They also argue that the deed requires a ticket office and bathrooms.
Hillman said he attended a meeting with representatives from the Montachusett Regional Authority and the office of U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas. The MBTA decided not to show up to that meeting, he said.
"I am thoroughly disgusted with the MBTA in this situation, I felt that we were completely disrespected at that meeting," he said, adding that he does not feel state representatives have done as much as they could have.
Residents recently sent a citizens' petition to the MBTA and MassDOT Secretary Richard Davey urging for the adoption of the deed requirements. State legislators Jamie Eldridge, Jen Benson and Sheila Harrington were copied on the petition.
"I cannot tell you how disappointed we are at where we have come after we gathered so many signatures," said Ellen FitzPatrick, a resident who worked on the petition.
FitzPatrick said she was insulted that the MBTA did not show up for the meeting, and urged the town to get the MBTA and Davey together for one.
"Somebody needs to get the lawyer and/or Mr. Berry to the table to have conversations, however that may be," she said. "And if those conversations are not going in the direction they need to go, somebody needs to take legal means."
Hillman said he was prepared to make a motion to reverse a 2006 stance in which the board said it would not use eminent domain on the project.
Luca recused himself and Livingston said she needed to process the whole notion.
But Livingston told FitzPatrick that the best way to help move the situation along is to keep doing what she is doing.
"You keep bringing it up, you keep making sure that all elected officials are aware of the problem," she said.
The upcoming election year is how residents can get their attention, she said.