MOULTONBOROUGH —After a special meeting of the Planning Board on Wednesday and the regular meeting of the Board of Selectmen on Thursday many residents are more puzzled by the conduct of the selectmen than by that of the two members of the Planning Board — Josh Bartlett and Judy Ryerson — against whom they have initiated removal proceedings.
Amid much confusion, this much is clear. On July 10, the Planning Board, by a tortured process and in a controversial decision, approved the construction of an observation tower on Red Hill built without requisite permits. At least two of the five selectmen fielded complaints from citizens and the selectboard may or may not have received a written statement from one or more individuals apparently questioning the conduct of two members of the Planning Board.
Following their regularly scheduled meeting on July 18, the selectmen held a non-meeting with Town Counsel Peter Minkow to consider the information they had received. At the meeting the selectboard agreed to begin removal proceedings, but instructed Town Administrator Carter Terenzini and Minkow to offer the two members the opportunity to resign rather than undergo a public hearing. After both Bartlett and Ryerson refused to resign, the selectmen set a public hearing on September 9 to determine if there is cause to remove Bartlett and Ryerson from the Planning Board. The charges, which bore primarily on their conduct in approving construction of the observation tower, were set forth in letters to Bartlett and Ryerson, which were signed by the five selectmen.
The identity of the complainant has not been disclosed and the form of the complaint remains in question. Aggrieved that his character has been impugned, Bartlett has repeatedly asked the selectmen to name the source of the complaint and they have steadfastly refused. On Wednesday, Selectmen Russell Wakefield, who represents the selectboard on the Planning Board, told the Planning that the selectmen received a "petition" from a person he declined to name.
However, on Thursday, when Paul Punturieri, a member of the Planning Board, pressed the selectmen to disclose the source of the complaints, Joel Mudgett, the chairman of the board, replied "actually there were a number of people." Likewise, Selectman John Tolman said that before the board met "the issue was already on my radar." Mudgett went on to say that those who spoke to him did not want to be identified since they might appear before the Planning Board in the future.
When Wakefield asked if the selectboard could disclose the identity of "the person who initiated this with a petition, before any discussion was had by the board," Mudgett said "we had some paperwork . . . but I never did see an actual petition." Wakefield, who the night before insisted the petitioner, not the selectboard, initiated the proceedings — "we're just a pass through body," he said — remarked "I thought I did, but I could be wrong."
"I really am confused," said Bartlett, who reminded Wakefield that earlier he had said there was a letter and had directed Terenzini to provide it to himself and Ryerson, "because now I am being told that there is no such letter and you cannot disclose who the author might be.
"It's frightening to me, and it should be frightening to everyone of you as elected officials," Bartlett declared, "that one poison pen letter kept in secret and the author protected by some bond of secrecy can cause this much hassle. Is there a letter or not?" he asked.
Wakefield replied that the letter sent to Bartlett and Ryerson, with the notice of the hearing and list of the charges, "is not verbatim but very close to the document we received on the afternoon of that non-meeting with town counsel. That's what we received," he repeated. "We understood what it said."
Selectman Chris Shipp reminded his colleagues that anyone bringing a grievance against a town employee must submit a signed written statement and said that the same courtesy should be extended to appointed and elected officials. Several times he said that Bartlett and Ryerson should be entitled to face their accusers, explaining it that it was part of preparing their defense. He urged the board to address the issue of anonymity.
Although earlier Wakefield, the only selectmen to insist that the board received a document, conceded he could not recall if it was signed, Mudgett implied that it could not be disclosed because "the paperwork we saw that night was between us and the town attorney."
"The accuser at this point is the Board of Selectmen," Tolman said. "For right or wrong, we are the ones who signed this letter." He said that the selectmen found that the information they received warranted a public hearing. Wakefield disagreed, repeating what he said the night before that the "petitioner," not the selectmen, initiated the removal proceedings. "The Board of Selectmen are not the accuser," he said. "That's my belief."
Punturieri pointedly asked the selectmen if they had deliberated and voted during the non-meeting with town counsel on July 18. "Yes," said Mudgett. According to the Memorandum of the New Hampshire Attorney General on the application of the "Right-to-Know" law, "deliberation about the matter on which advice is sought may not occur during consultation with legal counsel." Instead, any deliberation and votes must take place in public session.
When Bartlett requested a record of the non-meeting under the Right-to-Know law, Terenzini told him that since no minutes are required of a non-meeting, none were taken and there were no other records of the proceedings. Meanwhile, Wakefield told the Planning Board that after consulting with town counsel the selectmen had no alternative other than to proceed with removal proceedings.
Although Wakefield said earlier that the "petitioner" would present the case against Bartlett and Ryerson at the public hearing, Mudgett said that the role would "probably" fall to Terenzini. Terenzini said yesterday that town counsel would likely serve as legal advisor to the slectmen in the course of the hearing, but hastened to add that there was no formal process for conducting removal hearings in either statutes or rules. "We're doing our best to craft a process that protects everyone's rights," he said.