AYER — Selectmen moved promptly last week, voting to dip into the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) funds it controls to make eleventh-hour payment of a lawsuit settlement.
Dennis Maher of Tewksbury was one of two plaintiffs who settled their wrongful incarceration lawsuits against the town of Ayer and its insurers last summer. Maher settled for $3.1 million.
DNA evidence cleared Maher after 19 years in prison. The other similarly situated plaintiff was the Estate of Kenneth Waters, which settled with the town and all but one of its several insurance companies for $3.4 million.
The town’s portion of the settlements was $126,750 each. Waters’ Estate was paid last summer with a reserve fund transfer approved by the selectmen and the Finance Committee. Maher’s payment has lingered. The Maher agreement entered into on July 22, 2009, calls for the town to pay its share within 365 days, or by July 22 — one week’s time.
Despite belief that the money was earlier set aside to make the Maher payment, it was not, it was revealed, which led to the selectmen using the UDAG monies to make payment. Selectman Gary Luca asked if another reserve-fund transfer should be sought from the Finance Committee to pay the balance due but interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter said no since the bill is not an unexpected expense — a requirement for reserve fund transfers. Luca agreed.
The selectmen voted 3-1 to use UDAG funds to make speedy payment with the understanding that fall Town Meeting will be asked to replace the money used with free cash or stabilization.
The hold-out vote was Selectman Frank Maxant. “I think this is an invalid use of UDAG money.”
Selectman Jim Fay wondered, why not seek a reserve fund transfer. “It becomes to me an emergency oversight. We’re under court order to pay it.”
But Luca said the fact that the matter slipped by Annual Town Meeting for payment was an error, not an emergency. “The fact that we didn’t have it on there is our incompetency. This has been hanging long enough — right, wrong or indifferent. And it needs to be done before July 22.”
Reacting to news that MassDevelopment has put on ice their planned $8 million public-safety complex project on Devens, Maxant said a spokesman’s statement in late June that the facility was put on hold due to a lack of grant money was a “face-saving comment.”
“MassDevelopment has been swindling us since day one,” Maxant said, stating its original charge was to refrain from competition with the local towns. Yet the public-safety complex had been pitched in recent months as a potential regionalized emergency dispatch center for the surrounding towns to buy into.
Opposed to the concept, Ayer selectmen lobbied the governor via letter to halt the public project. Ayer contends that it would like to serve as a regional hub for dispatching services itself. It was Maxant’s suggestion to appeal to the governor directly. Maxant said it proved “if you want to influence MassDevelopment, write the governor.”
“I told the press that I was happy that the governor listened to the Ayer Board of Selectmen,” echoed Fay, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
The board also unanimously reappointed Jesse Reich to the five-man Finance Committee and tapped Kim Krieser to serve on the Recycling Committee.
The selectmen otherwise tabled a slate of other appointments to several boards and commissions until it can be clarified whether some on the list desire reappointment.
Luca was angered to hear his request to Chairman Rick Gilles wasn’t honored, “much to my dismay.”
Luca sought to fill seats on a Town Government Study Group that he’d proposed. Interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter said that Gilles had requested the item be left off the meeting’s agenda. Gilles wasn’t in attendance Tuesday night.
The selectmen also voted to revise the membership criteria for the board to allow people to serve regardless of whether they’re a town employee or otherwise elected or appointed.
Acting Chairman Fay called for a recall vote to allow a broader make-up for the group. “In hindsight, that’s wrong. They’d have recommendations as much as others so why would I exclude anyone from that process?”
The revision passed 3-1 with Maxant opposed to the change, stating that there’s a perception that “town government is always doing things to satisfy people in town government.” To include town employees, elected and appointed officials, “supports that kind of perception.”
Maxant lobbied in the alternative unsuccessfully, that anyone, including elected and appointed officials, can weigh-in at group meetings to provide input without being impaneled on the board.
“I’m convinced I’m on the right track this time,” Fay said, in moving to reverse the earlier vote to ban elected and appointed officials from membership on the committee.
In other business, Ritter advised the board that Ayer’s liquor license holders are now permitted under state law to make application to the selectmen for permission for the extended hours for liquor sales.
Two finalists are to undergo interviews for a custodial post to assist Dan Sherman with the maintenance of town buildings. A final recommendation is to be presented to the selectmen at their next regularly scheduled meeting on July 20.