AYER – The Ayer selectmen wrangled over civility concerns between board members Tuesday night. The majority agreed to institute a policy change that touched on chain of command issues. One member disagreed, stating such a policy was already on the books but was being ignored.
The debate ratcheted-up a notch when the “m” word – murder – was uttered. Selectman Pauline Conley said she was warned by Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand that selectman Christopher Hillman had uttered the word when venting his anger over Conley. Hillman brushed off the significance of the word, stating he means nothing by the term.
Immediately after the board’s Nov. 13 meeting, Conley emailed Chairman Jim Fay to agenda a future discussion about “how the board conducts business.” Fay provided Conley’s email – and his response – to Nashoba Publishing.
In the email, Conley stated she was “very disappointed” the issue of the intra-board relations were not addressed at the Nov. 13 meeting. Conley said the situation “gives me concern as a member of this board, namely the accusatory, disrespectful email communications I receive from fellow selectmen.”
Conley said that just before the Nov. 13 meeting, Pontbriand indicated that the evening’s discussion would include suggestions of “remedial action” to rectify bad selectman behavior, which Conley said Fay had “suggested in the past.”
Conley asked for the issue to be put on Tuesday’s agenda. Instead, Fay suggested changes to the board’s Policies and Procedures. Fay suggested : (1) emails communications be copied to one another and to the Town Administrator, and (2) that the “Chain of Command for the Board of Selectmen flows through the Town Administrator to the Department Heads” with “all taskings” processed through the Town Administrator.
“This is a reiteration of our prior policies,” summarized Fay. “Tell Robert and it gets done.”
“That’s very dangerous,” said selectman Frank Maxant who said channeling individual selectmen’s wish list to department heads “should be verboten from the beginning.”
Maxant suggested any selectmen requests go through the entire board first. “You can’t have one selectman saying ‘I want this done’ and another selectman saying “I want this done.”
Selectman Gary Luca agreed with Maxant. “It seems I’m tasking Robert to do something and this board should be tasking Robert to do something…the problem I have is disseminating information to all board members.”
Conley said Fay’s suggested policy was not necessary since it already exists. “I’m not sure why we’re creating it again. It’s simply not followed routinely.”
Conley circled back around to her main concern- board relations. “I’m taking this opportunity now…I will not mention names as I don’t want to get into a defensive argument with anybody…”
“If you want to bring a specific complaint or charge, I’ll agenda that specifically,” said Fay. “If we make intimations about certain officials, procedure must be followed when commenting or making a charge against another public official.”
“You can’t debate it now; it’s too far afield,” said Fay to Conley. “Tread carefully…I’d like you to make your point and move on.”
Quoting from the existing policy, Conley said, “With respect to specifically treating members of the board with respect despite differences of opinion, we’ve all received communications from various members of this board.”
Conley added that she’d overheard yelling from within the Town Administrator on the evening of Nov. 2. Conley later confirmed that she saw Hillman followed by Pontbriand emerge from the office.
“It’s not germane,” said Fay. “I’m ruling that line of conversation out of order.”
“I’ve asked you to agenda this 3 times,” said Conley who then burst out “I’m tired of being threatened by members of this board.”
Conley said she would not file a complaint against the selectman, knowing the selectman could invoke executive privilege under the Open Meeting Law.
Conley said her concerns emanate from a set of incidents on the night of Nov. 2. That evening, Pontbriand informed Conley that an “agitated” Hillman entered his office saying that he wanted to “murder” someone and that “he had a list.”
Later that evening, Hillman sent the board an email stating an “evil” selectman was working to “derail” a benefit for a local cause. Hillman wrote, “I think if I were that person I would lay low for a while for safety sake.”
Hillman’s email continued, “You should be ashamed of yourself, and I have to ask – do you have a soul, or is it more like a big empty void that you feed by trying to make others look bad.”
Asked after Tuesday’s meeting if he’d ever uttered the word murder, Hillman said “I say it all the time. I said it today” but said it was only a figure of speech.
Conley confirmed that Pontbriand told her he’d spoken to each selectmen and the chief of police after Hillman’s “murder” statement.
“Now I don’t want to hear that from any member of this board again,” said Conley to the board.
Fay offered “I’d hope you’d see an end to the mean-spirited emails.”
But Conley said Fay’s suggested policy wasn’t the answer. “We have a policy. We don’t need to adopt anything different. I don’t need to file a complaint….I haven’t threatened anybody.”
Selectman Frank Maxant said Conley’s “animated” tone was justified. “In her defense, I think she was being sand-bagged.”
Maxant said he’d heard “on multiple occasions” that Conley’s concerns would be aired publicly. To Fay, Maxant said “You were throttling her.”
On the idea of singling out one selectman for reprimand, Fay defended “I needed to skirt that issue very carefully. If you make a complaint against a public official…”
“This discussion was to allow her to do that,” said Maxant. “It sounded like you weren’t going to allow her to do that. She was to have an opportunity to address her issue.”
Conley sits next to Hillman at board meetings. While Fay said to Conley, “I said I’d physically move your chair” the seating configuration remains the same.
Conley alone opposed Fay’s proposed policy which passed on a 4-1 vote.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata and ‘like’ Nashoba Publishing at facebook.com/NashobaPub.