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NASHOBA PUBLISHING / JOHN LOVE
Ralph McNiff meets with selectmen Tuesday afternoon for a special meeting about his former farm.
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AYER — Despite a friendship dating back to their days at Ayer High, Selectman Frank Maxant, re-elected Monday, voted against meeting with Westford Road resident Ralph McNiff behind closed doors on Tuesday, April 27.

The vote was 4-1, with Maxant opposed.

The meeting’s purpose was not made entirely clear except that it was to negotiate with McNiff after the town’s taking of his farm on March 29, following a Land Court foreclosure decree issued Feb. 16 due to nonpayment of real estate taxes.

McNiff is delinquent in the amount of $28,127.99, with about $10 in interest accruing daily. McNiff hasn’t vacated the property but remains on site with his cows and pigs.

Records indicate a checkered real estate tax payment history dating back to 1996. Retiring Treasurer Denis Callahan and his newly elected replacement, Stephanie Gintner, were both brought into the closed-door session on Tuesday, as was retiring Town Tax Collector Ann Callahan and her newly elected replacement, John Canney.

Interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter assured the selectmen that they were on solid legal ground entering executive session under Open Meeting Law exemption 6, which permits closed-door deliberations by a public board “to consider the purchase, exchange, lease or value of real property.”

Maxant read the entire exemption aloud, including the clause that specifically bars a closed-door meeting “if an open discussion may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the governmental body.”

While the selectmen’s past practice has been to post an agenda or a description of the purpose of their meetings, Tuesday’s posting lacked a description or notice of their pre-planned executive session and legal rationale for same. “I don’t know if that was an error of omittance by the town administrator,” offered Luca.

Selectman Jim Fay said it’s the “person’s prerogative as to whether to go open or closed” on the public’s attendance for the negotiations. “I was going to say, we don’t know yet because we haven’t talked to him.”

In this case, the town owns the farm and McNiff occupies it as a squatter, subject to eviction if the town chooses. At an April meeting, the selectmen instead authorized Ritter to try to strike a deal with the farmer.

The 4.88-acre parcel, located at the corner of Loon Hill Road and Westford Road, is currently operated as a pig and cattle farm. While the Ayer Board of Health has affirmed the animals on the farm are kept in good condition, detractors have complained that debris-filled fields and structures are an eyesore in plain view.

Assessor’s records show the value of the property at $272,200. The property is taxed as a single-family residence despite the farming use. The six-room home, built in 1887, is effectively in 1950s’ condition, according to the town’s property card.

McNiff silently sat in the audience. Ritter stated that he had a conversation with McNiff just before the public meeting and confirmed that the man hoped to meet with the selectmen in private.

Maxant offered: “This means to me that if the other side is to learn about what we’re doing, it may put us in a detrimental position (but) in this case, the other side is here so there’s no point for executive session. And so this particular session cannot qualify under the law for Open Meeting Law.”

“That’s your opinion, Frank, and we should get on with the business at hand,” said Gilles.

“Can you explain the detrimental position,” Maxant responded.

“I can explain it to you in executive session,” replied Gilles.

“I’ll try to shed some light on this,” said Fay. “We’re going to discuss the taking of the property.”

When it was noted from the audience that the property has already been taken by the town, Fay responded, “We’ re going to negotiate with the man and it’s going to have to happen in executive session.”

Former selectman candidate and Board of Health member Mary Spinner questioned the selectmen’s approach, noting that McNiff had a one-year option to buy back the property with “one check with all the money he owes us. Period. I’m still kind of confused as to what is left to negotiate.”

“I guess we won’ t know that till we get into executive session,” answered Luca.

“Oh, you’ re really splitting hairs,” Spinner retorted.

Maxant persisted. “Reading the English language, ‘if an open discussion may have a detrimental effect on the negotiation position.’

Selectman Carolyn McCreary interjected. “I think that this is a personal delicate matter and the other person who is involved has asked for it to be in executive session. Since it’s personal, and we may be discussing personal financial situations, I think it’s appropriate to do this in executive session.”

“No”, resident Michael Pattenden disagreed. It is a matter of public concern now that the land is owned by the town. “With all due respect, it’s a done deal. The town owns the property at the moment. It may be a delicate matter (but) it’s absolutely an open, clear Land Court decision. There’s really nothing to discuss about the taking of the property.”

“This is not intended to spare people embarrassment,” added Maxant. “Yes it’s a sensitive matter but it’s also public business (regarding) making possibly some deal that will affect the public benefit.”

The last question posed came from the Public Spirit, asking the selectmen to confirm whether or not a deal had been contemplated for the town to give the land back to McNiff in exchange for a pledgeto clean the property himself.

“Maybe or maybe not,” Luca responded. Ritter quickly jumped in.

“Based on my experience, I feel very comfortable” with using the real property negotiation Open Meeting Law exemption. “It’s possible the Board may ask Mr. McNiff to leave the room so the board may deliberate over some of the things.”

The outcome of the meeting, which lasted approximately an hour, was not immediately revealed.