AYER -- The Planning Board is facing four Open Meeting Law complaints from newly elected board member Jeremy Callahan.
The first of the complaints, filed June 2, addresses a letter Planning Board Chair Morris Babcock sent to Callahan on a number of topics, including a request to move board meetings to the Ayer police station.
"We respectfully deny this request as there is no compelling reason for this on the Planning Board agenda," the letter reads. "This is not relevant to the charter of the Ayer Planning Board."
Callahan has a harassment prevention order against him from the board's administrator, Susan Sullivan. The order forbids him from Town Hall outside of normal business hours, making Callahan unable to attend evening meetings at Town Hall.
Babcock's letter also addresses a few other items, including a discussion on the Gervais Ford site plan extension.
"Please indicate your specific need for this discussion," the letter reads. "Without a specific need identified we cannot add the item to the agenda."
In his complaint, obtained by The Public Spirit with the other two from Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, Callahan claims that the Babcock letter is a deliberation because it copied all members of the Planning Board and addressed Planning Board business.
Under the law, a deliberation is defined as communication between a quorum of any public body concerning public business. Such discussions must take place in an open meeting, with a few exceptions.
"Second, in four instances you refer to the Planning Board directly or by using the pronoun 'we,' indicating a deliberative process has already taken place and decisions have been made by the Planning Board outside of the open meeting forum," the complaint continues.
Callahan's complaint states that these violations reflect the board's history of "obfuscating important issues and deceiving the public and other Planning Board members."
The second complaint refers to a May 1 meeting in which the board did not put Callahan's request to discuss future meeting locations on the agenda. Callahan claims that Morris acknowledged the proposed agenda item, but stated it would not be discussed in an open meeting forum.
"He then proceeded to make statements clearly suggesting the matter proposed as an additional agenda item was deliberated by a quorum of the Planning Board outside of the legally scheduled meeting," the complaint reads.
The third complaint claims that Planning Board members met in an "unscheduled and unadvertised" meeting by coming before the Board of Selectmen during the selectmen's meeting on June 3.
"This is a clear violation of the open meeting law and was intentional," the complaint states. "The Ayer Planning Board continues to flagrantly disregard the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law."
The complaints request open meeting law training for the board and its staff, as well as a discussion of future meeting locations at the next open meeting.
Babcock said Callahan's request to take part in board meetings remotely does not meet the requirements outlined in state law. Under the state law, a member of a public body can participate in a meeting using video conferencing or other technology for five reasons: Illness, disability, emergency, military service or distance.
Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand said town counsel is reviewing the complaints.
In regard to the letter Babcock wrote, Babcock said he responded to Callahan's requests with his own review of the situation. "It wasn't intended to be a Planning Board review. It was intended to be a communication back to Jeremy saying that we needed more information," he said.
Babcock said he does not believe the issue of moving to a new meeting place is a Planning Board issue.
About adding another agenda item, Babcock said Callahan sent the request on April 30, the day before the board's May 1 meeting.
But Babcock explained that the board is required by law to post the agenda 48 hours before the meeting.
"Not to mention I hadn't even had a chance to review the request for Mr. Callahan first anyway," he said.
Babcock also said board members were well within their rights as citizens to be at the selectmen's meeting.
"It's an issue for all four of us," he said. "Not to mention that the Board of Selectmen was an open meeting."
Open Meeting Law does allow board members to attend a meeting of another public body, but only if they communicate through open participation on the topic at hand and do not deliberate. In this case, the Planning Board discussed funding issues with selectmen.
The town has 14 business days to respond to these complaints, with a deadline of June 20 and 24.
A fourth complaint from Callahan claims that the Planning Board met "behind closed doors" at Town Hall at 6 p.m. on June 2.
The complaint states that Babcock wrote in a May 24 letter to Callahan that a meeting would be held on June 2 at 7 p.m.
A letter from Babcock dated May 24, included in one of Callahan's first complaints, informed Callahan that the next meeting was scheduled for June 5 at 7 p.m. Callahan later clarified in an email that in this particular complaint, he meant to write that Babcock indicated the next meeting would be on June 5 at 7 p.m.
Callahan also writes in the complaint that the notice for this meeting was emailed to all other board members except for himself.
"The meeting agenda indicated the sole purpose for the meeting was for the Planning Board to enter into executive session," wrote Callahan. "According to the OML, all meetings must begin in open session. The reason for the executive session must be established."
An agenda for the June 2 meeting lists the meeting at 6 p.m., and notes that the board is meeting with "the sole purpose to enter into Executive Session." The agenda also gives "Exemption #1" as the reason for entering into executive -- which by law is reserved for the need to discuss personnel.
"We did follow Open Meeting Law, we opened it with a regular meeting, we asked if there was any input from the audience, there was none," he said. "We then did a role call vote into executive session and from there adjourned to a private room because we were not clear whether or not the video system was operating at that time."
Babcock said there was no meeting held behind closed doors before the posted time.