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Staff Writer

PEPPERELL — A citizens’ petition demanding “full disclosure” of details behind a 15-month contract extension for town administrator Robert Hanson that was made unexpectedly in an executive session last April, has begun to make the rounds.

Richard Potts and Richard Aubin were soliciting signatures outside the polls for the June 23 override vote. They contend, allegedly based on the opinion of three attorneys, that Hanson’s extension violates the town’s personnel bylaws.

The extension carries Hanson’s service beyond the expiration of his current contract on June 30, 2009. It does not involve a pay raise, Hanson said when first asked about the extension last month.

Selectmen voted 2-1 to grant his request in an executive session that, according to meeting minutes, was to discuss a yet-to-be-signed contract for union employees at Lawrence Library.

The meeting was the last for outgoing chairman Darrell Gilmore.

Hanson maintains he made his request knowing that the seated board had experience in working with him. Selectman Patrick McNabb had yet to be elected to fill Gilmore’s seat.

Minutes of the meeting contain no record of what was said other than that both contracts were discussed. They reflect that Selectman Lyndon Johnson made a motion for Hanson’s extension, seconded by Selectman Joseph Sergi, who cast the lone negative vote.

Discussion of Hanson’s closed-door decision was used as an example, at the board’s June 23 meeting, of a growing difference of opinion between Sergi and Johnson regarding the sanctity of a written agenda as a tool to make government transparent and eliminate citizen suspicion about back-door deals.

That night, Conservation Commission administrator Ellen Fisher, who was not listed on the agenda, discussed possible town purchase of an undisclosed piece of property, something which is grounds for executive session. It was put off.

Johnson, now chairman, said the concept of putting everything in writing bothers him because the town has run fine “shooting from the cuff.” He encouraged unannounced participation at board meetings. He maintained that if something has not come to the attention of selectmen by the Thursday prior to Monday selectmen’s meetings, it isn’t discussed.

“It often takes just a discussion,” Johnson said of unannounced issues.

Sergi maintained the meeting agenda and minutes are important tools to inform the citizenry.

“It isn’t up to board members to find out what’s going on; it’s up to the administrator to inform them (by the prior Thursday, to allow time for discovery),” he said.

Johnson did not agree with Sergi’s “paper push.”

“For example, I’d like to find out about this (town land) which we couldn’t do (in open session), but it’s become one procedural matter after another,” he said.

Alluding to e-mail and telephone conversations that take place outside of meetings, Johnson said, “For example (external discussion of Hanson’s contract) creates a division in town. We’re under constraints. I call this chatting behind the scenes divisive and I’m getting sick of it.”

“I ran the Planning Board for 10 years (and the agenda) was a tool we used to inform folks,” Sergi responded. “Not all decisions are quick or in a vacuum and many have long-term ramifications. The Board of Selectmen used to meet for only five minutes.”

McNabb, whose election campaign contained a plank about transparent communication, said he wants more detail on the agenda.

“What’s the detriment to the town (in dealing with non-agenda items)?” Johnson asked. “Are you saying that before you (Sergi’s election) the town wasn’t run right?”

“That’s open to your interpretation,” Sergi replied.

“It’s been eating away at me. I enjoy the work. There are bigger and more important things than e-mails and chatter about the way this board has been run,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to answer (citizens’) concerns.”

After the June 23 meeting, Johnson said Hanson’s request for an extension in executive session was a surprise to him, but he had voted for it because Hanson is doing a good job and he approved of Hanson’s reason for asking.

He said lawyers’ opinions can be obtained to support any viewpoint.

Hanson had said the 15-month extension allows him time to finish his work for the town as his retirement draws closer, and it served to give him a personal time frame for leaving.

Sergi, who has pushed to reform the town administrator’s job description and for a performance evaluation schedule, said he voted against the extension because the request was premature.

He said the personnel bylaw specifies the administrator’s contract is renewable in one- and three-year increments (Article 3, Section 27-3).

Hanson has said that as a contract employee, his position is exempt from the personnel bylaw and a contract extension can be requested at any time.

“This looked like a political move to insure (Hanson) has employment going forward,” Sergi said. “However, this isn’t about personalities; it’s about procedure. There was no boiler plate on the agenda. I told (Hanson) Friday (before the Monday board meeting) to send an e-mail disclosing why we would be going into executive session. He failed to comply,” Sergi said.

Sergi said he’s curious to see what the results of the petition will be. Hanson said he fears it could cost the town unnecessary legal expenses.

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