M'boro Planning Board stands by its members

MOULTONBOROUGH — At a special meeting last night the Planning Board resolved not to "support the removal of two of its members based on the allegations set forth in the notice of hearing."

The motion was offered by Peter Jensen, vice-chairman of the board, in response to the proceedings initiated by the selectmen to remove Josh Bartlett and Judy Ryerson under the statute (RSA 673:13), which vests the selectboard with the sole authority to remove appointed or elected members of land use boards — the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Adjustment — for "inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office."

With Tom Howard, the chairman of the Planning Board, the lone dissenter, the motion carried four-to-one, with Jensen, Keith Nelson, Natt King and Bob Goffredo in the majority. Paul Punturieri, who proposed a stronger motion, abstained. Bartlett, Ryerson and Russell Wakefield, the selectmen on the board, recused themselves.

Some 40 residents attended the meeting, which was convened at the request of Punturieri, Bartlett and Ryerson to consider "the recent events that have led to the requested resignation of two members."

The chain of events began when, on July 10, the Planning Board approved construction of an observation tower by Bob and Cathy Williams, doing business as Bear's Nest Trail, LLC, on Red Hill, which had been built without a site plan or building permit and contravened the ordinance restricting development on steep slopes.

To approve the project, the board was required to find that it satisfied 11 criteria. The minutes record that Peter Jensen, the acting chairman, "polled" the seven members of the board on the 11 criteria. Two of the 11 failed when the board split evenly — three-to-three — with Bartlett abstaining and Ryerson voting no. However, neither believed it was the best interest of the town to require the structure be dismantled. Ryerson changed her "no" to "yes," breaking the stalemate in the "poll," and Bartlett offered a motion to grant the CUP, which carried five-to-two.
Last night, Wakefield disclosed after the Planning Board ruled, the selectmen received a "petition" from an as-yet-unidentified resident challenging the conduct of Bartlett and Ryerson, primarily for changing their votes. On July 18, the selectmen met with Town Counsel Peter Minkow, who Wakefield said advised them to use their statutory authority to begin removal proceedings, but first instruct Town Administrator Carter Terenzini to offer the two members the opportunity to resign rather than undergo a public hearing.

When the two refused to resign the selectboard scheduled a public hearing to determine if they should be removed from office. That hearing is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 9, beginning at 1 p.m. The format of the hearing provides 30 minutes for the presentation of the charges, 30 minutes for rebuttal of the charges and time for the selectmen to deliberate. The case against Bartlett is scheduled to be presented at 1 p.m. and against Ryerson at 3:30 p.m. Town Counsel Peter Minkow will serve as an adviser to the selectboard
Wakefield repeatedly insisted that the petitioner, not the selectmen, initiated the proceedings. Claiming the selectboard had no alternative, he said, "We're not trying to impeach these people. We're trying to follow the rules." He noted that the charges leveled against Bartlett and Ryerson, which were specified in letters sent to them last week, were framed by the petitioner. "One individual is all it takes," he said. "We (the selectmen) were just a pass-through."

Challenged by several residents, Wakefield urged, "Have faith in your elected officials, in our intelligence to handle this properly" only to be met with a round of raucous laughter.

Eric Taussig, an attorney, said that the selectboard was misapplying the statute. He explained that if the selectmen found fault with the decision of the Planning Board, the appropriate remedy is to appeal the ruling in superior court, not seek to remove members of the board. He pointed to the example of Meredith, where when some residents challenged a variance granted by the ZBA, the selectmen found merit in their argument and filed suit to reverse the decision.

The action by the Planning Board was foreshadowed by Punturieri, who in opening statement explained that he requested the special meeting because he believed that by not bringing the complaint to the Planning Board, the selectmen presented "a dangerous and chilling precedent. Asking for resignations under threat of public disgrace," he continued , "is unethical and tantamount to blackmail."

Nelson, who was echoed by King agreed. Nelson said that in the Bear's Nest Trail case, the board acted together, not as individuals, and questions about the procedure or the decision should be addressed to the board. "The selectmen chose the wrong action," he said.

Likewise, Jensen, who acted as chairman during the discussion of the Bear's Nest Trail case, said that "the charges should not proceed." He acknowledged, "I had difficulty during that hearing," indicating that he was unsure of how to proceed.

"All can assume some blame for a really mishandled case," said King.