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AYER — Selectmen Tuesday night unanimously ratified a new insurance liability policy, protecting the town’s trucks that haul sewerage waste to Fitchburg.

However, the unanimous vote came with some stinging criticisms for Chairman Rick Gilles on how the matter was handled without advance notice to fellow board members.

Selectman Gary Luca sent out a terse e-mail to fellow selectmen and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand, challenging Pontbriand regarding Gilles’ move, at Pontbriand’s suggestion, to sign a three-year insurance policy on the town’s behalf without first putting the issue before the full board.

Selectmen were alerted of the move in an e-mail Pontbriand sent to the Board on Aug. 27. Pontbriand informed the board, at Gilles’ request, that “we had two time sensitive documents that required signature by the BOS Chair regarding the Town of Ayer’s Pollution Liability Insurance.” The town had failed to pay its $10,000 premium, and so the policy covering sewer sludge hauling lapsed Aug. 24.

The good news, however, was that the town’s insurance agent offered a three-year re-signing deal with the same insurer, the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association (MIIA), that would cost $17,700 instead of $30,000 over the next three years, a savings of $12,300.

Pontbriand informed the selectmen that DPW Superintendent Dan Nason and Town Accountant Lisa Gabree “both agreed that it was a good savings for the town. I then consulted the Chair for his signature so that we would have pollution coverage — as it had expired on August 24th — and at this new valued price.”

Pontbriand concluded his e-mail by stating “this matter’s time sensitivity required immediate action and could not wait until the BOS reconvened on September 7th.” The town trucks two-three loads of wastewater sludge to Fitchburg daily, Pontbriand said.

The next day, Luca blasted Pontbriand in an Aug. 28 e-mail. “I fully understand the importance of renewing the insurance but I find it highly offensive that Chairman Gilles would for the third time make a decision without the full board meeting and deciding the merits of a particular issue. Why do we have a board when we have a chair that makes all the decisions for us and for you to take direction from the Chair directly is dead wrong,” Luca said.

“Any decision affecting the town and its finances needs to be discussed and voted by the WHOLE board and not one individual,” Luca wrote, his own emphasis provided. Luca requested the matter be placed on the Sept. 7 meeting agenda “to discuss how we are supposed to operate in the future. The Chair is taking too many liberties without direction from the board and I respectfully request that it ceases immediately.”

Luca requested that town counsel be asked to advise the selectmen on the legality of a contract signed by Gilles on behalf of the selectmen before the board collectively sanctioned the new insurance policy.

Pontbriand answered the selectmen prior to the meeting via e-mail on Aug. 30. He indicated that he, too, “was concerned that the Town would receive such ‘last minute notice’ about the expiration of an insurance policy.” The lapse apparently occurred during the changing of the guard in the town administrator’s office.

Pontbriand said Cabot Insurance Agent Susan Nadil indicated that on Tuesday, July 27, she’d e-mailed the policy renewal to interim Town Administrator Jeff Ritter. Ritter left the office officially on Friday, July 30. Pontbriand assumed the town administrator duties on Monday, Aug. 2.

Pontbriand said he’d briefed Gilles first “that the BOS would have to ratify the signature and policy at its September 7th meeting.” Pontbriand said Giles “concurred and signed the two documents,” which were immediately faxed to the company, restoring coverage and locking in the lower premium rate. Pontbriand explained he then moved to notify the whole board of the events.

“With all due respect, I did not intend to circumvent the BOS. I felt that the Town needed Auto Pollution Liability Insurance and that the added benefit of a cost savings of $12,300 for three years of coverage was in the Town’s best interest. I was concerned that the logistics involved to set up an emergency meeting of the BOS on such short notice for this item would be problematic,” Pontbriand said.

Meetings of municipal boards require 48-hour advance notice, excluding weekends and holidays, unless sufficient emergency circumstances exist. “Thank you for your time, understanding, and consideration,” Pontbriand signed off.

The sludge flies

At Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting, a three-man majority of the five-member board criticized Gilles for moving without at least informing the board first or polling the members as to whether or not to convene an emergency or special board meeting.

First, Pontbriand stepped up and stated “MIIA was insistant that both of the documents need to be signed by the Board of Selectmen Chairman.” Pontbriand said he and Gilles then agreed a full board vote would take place. But is that legally binding — or Gilles to sign without the board’s vote authorizing the move first?

“Some of the board, rightfully so, expressed concern over the validity of that,” admitted Pontbriand. “In verifying that, in an emergency situation, a signature by the chair can be ratified at the next regular meeting.”

Upon hearing selectmen fallout that there should have been an emergency meeting, or at least polling of the membership on whether to meet, “I apologize that we didn’t proceed in that vein,” Pontbriand said.

Luca thanked Pontbriand for finding the savings, “I”m glad you fell into it. We saved a lot of money by mistake. And I have no objection to the process until you notified the Chair. My preference would have been to have an emergency meeting. It’s up to the board to make these decisions and it keeps happening. That’s my frustration.” Luca didn’t enumerate the prior incidents.

“Robert, you did your job. The chairman was notified. And an emergency meeting should have been called. It could have been called the next morning,” said Luca to Pontbriand, though Gilles sat to Luca’s immediate right hand side at the meeting room table. “That’s where I’m hoping the chair realizes it and this doesn’t happen any more.”

To Luca’s left, Slectman Frank Maxant agreed. “I’m taking comfort and relief that we don’t have one of those trucks on the road right now. I’m absolutely convinced that if I was the insurance company’s lawyer that the policy would not be valid because state law does not permit one person without authorization to contract on behalf of the town. I agree with Mr. Luca. We should have had an emergency meeting.”

In the alternative, the town trucks should have been parked, Maxant said. “Shut ’em down if we couldn’t have an emergency meeting.”

Selectman Jim Fay agreed. The process should have been to call the board to see if they want to meet on this if it’s a valid way to go. Can one person obligate the town based on his signature? That’s a good question. Going forward, this ratification business is a situation rarely, rarely used. As a policy, call a meeting of a board and see what we want to do.” Fay advised.

As a policy, definitely call the emergency meeeting to make sure we’re not doing something without the other members of the board knowing it,” Fay punctuated his remarks.

Selectman Carolyn McCreary disagreed and defended Gilles’ actions. She opined that Gilles’ signature was likely binding.

“This is not like this is a decision that would affect the direction of the town. This is a routine matter that needed to be taken care of right away,” McCreary said. She applauded Pontbriand and Gilles for their fast action. “We’re certainly all going to vote to ratify this and we would have at a special meeting. I think for routine matters like this, it’s perfectly acceptable for the chair and the town administrator to move forward with what needs to be done.”

“I have a problem with what becomes routine,” retorted Luca. “Second, if you don’t think it’s the purview of the Board of Selectmen to which you’re elected to, then maybe you need to talk to the Town Government Study Committee. It’s up to us to make the decision and not for anyone else to make the decision for us, routine or not. If that’s the case, go to a town manager (form of government) and have the decision made by the town manager. But that’s not the form of government we’re under right now.”

Gilles said little about the skirmish Tuesday night. Last week, Giles told The Public Spirit: “We had trucks on the road and this is insurance that covers us while we’re covering wastewater and sludge so it’s really important to have that coverage in place. When Robert found about about it, he acted judiciously and quickly and by my signing off on it, we put it in place so that if there was an incident we’d be covered, so it was really protecting the town on liability issues,” Gilles said.