AYER -- On a 4-1 vote, the Ayer Board of Selectmen Tuesday stripped Selectman Frank Maxant of the vice chairman title he's held since April. The move comes eight weeks before Maxant's three-year term is to expire. Maxant is in a four-way race for the selectman's seat. Election Day is Tuesday, April 30.
Maxant alone opposed the move.
Chairman Jim Fay suggested Maxant be removed following Maxant's Sunday afternoon email to the Attorney General's Office asking if the state could "head off at the pass" a planned Tuesday executive session meeting that Maxant believed would violate the Open Meeting Law (OML).
Maxant copied his email to Nashoba Publishing, his landlord Hugh Ernisse (a landlord targeted by the board for enforcement actions on his two Ayer properties), and Town Administrator Robert Pontbriand. The email was titled "9 mo. (months) later, another attempt at OML violation AND Elder Abuse in Ayer."
"I would have thought that the pendency of my OML complaint with regard to our Ayer Board of Selectmen's executive session of June 5, 2012, would inspire some caution in our Chair and my colleagues," wrote Maxant. "But our agenda for Tuesday March 5, exactly nine months later, shows this was a forlorn hope."
Maxant complained to the state over last June's closed-door meeting with Building Inspector Gabe Vellante over several targeted properties. Part way through the meeting, Maxant alleged that the threshold for a closed-door meeting to discuss "litigation strategy" against the property owners hadn't been met. Despite his participation in the meeting, Maxant filed a complaint against the whole board, claiming the discussion should have been conducted in open session.
In Sunday's email, signed by Maxant as vice chair of the board, he said selectmen were again planning to discuss "the same seemingly 'easy targets' as before, plus one."
"My colleagues' intent is to scheme ways to deny these targets the quiet enjoyment of their properties. The motivation is some neighbors' opinions about the properties' appearance," said Maxant. "The new target is a farmer in his 70's operating a pig farm alone, with a new housing development on the hillside above."
Maxant again alleged the threshold for a closed-door discussion had not been met since "there is no litigation extant, pending, or threatened. The reason for trying executive session is, I believe, the same as in June -- to shield the Board from public scrutiny of our scheming."
Maxant also asked "Do you have a way to head this off at the pass? To me, preventing it is preferable to complaining about it after the fact."
Maxant said he earlier complained about the agenda item to his peers on Friday and "received only a hostile response from our newest selectman."
Maxant emailed the board membership on Friday afternoon, "Here we go again! There can be no X-session discussion of litigation strategy before there is any litigation! This is just another attempt to avoid public scrutiny of our determination to deny people their rights."
Christopher Hillman, the newest selectmen, unleashed on Maxant via email Saturday evening, writing, "The only public scrutiny is from you! It only seems to be a problem when we are talking about your boyfriend (Hugh) Ernisse."
"Let's do it in open session. Why not -- you will violate the executive session anyways as you did with the King case!" said Hillman. At a December meeting, Maxant alleged that town counsel had advised the board in executive session that the town's new sex-offender residency restricting bylaw is unconstitutional. The board has refused to release the closed door minutes of their meetings regarding Level 3 sex offender John King's civil action against the town, citing the now-passed opportunity for appeal.
"Don't try to deny it, but none of the details were finalized or made public, yet you felt it necessary to say the attorney said it was unconstitutional! Unbelievable!" blasted Hillman. "I should and still may file a complaint about you violating executive session concerning a case that had huge ramifications to the town and the police chief!"
Hillman alleged Maxant has a conflict of interest in sitting in on matters relating to Ernisse. "I will insist that from now on you recuse yourself from any discussions regarding your landlord, and apparent BFF! It is a conflict of interest and it's amazing we have let it go on this long! Who do you represent again?"
Hillman told Maxant to invite all the property owners for Tuesday's board meeting "and tell them to bring their A game because you have not even come close to seeing mine!"
In the end, due to a reported scheduling conflict with town counsel, the selectmen didn't meet Tuesday to discuss "litigation strategy" over town action against targeted properties.
In open session, Fay suggested that Maxant's use of his official signature as vice chair violated the board's policy stating that a member "should not make any representation to anyone on behalf of the board unless and until the board takes an official position on the matter."
Fay also alleged Maxant violated a separate selectmen's policy to "uphold the intent of executive session and respect the privileged communication that exists in executive session." In doing so, Fay alleged Maxant has "shown himself to be unworthy of the position of vice chairman."
Maxant maintained that he was within his right to use the vice chairman signature at the end of his email and argued it was clear that he was complaining to the state in his individual capacity and not on behalf of the Ayer Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Pauline Conley said she was "offended" by Maxant's claim that the board had a mal intent to meet behind closed doors and victimize senior citizen property owners. After the vote to remove Maxant as vice chair, Fay sought a nomination for a new vice chair. Maxant nominated Conley which passed unanimously.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.