GILMANTON — Trying the patience of nearly 50 concerned residents and town employees gathered in the auditorium of the Academy Building Tuesday evening, the two remaining members of the Board of Selectmen — Don Guarino and Michael Jean — wrangled for almost two hours before finally appointing Rachel Hatch to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Steve McCormack.
Last month the pair interviewed three candidates — Hatch, Brian Forst and Brett Currier — to serve until March when McCormack's term expires. But, they failed to reach agreement as Guarino firmly cleaved to Currier while Jean resolutely opposed him, preferring either of the other two candidates. Since Jean believes that the appointment of Currier, whose son Matt is the Police Chief, would represent a conflict of interest, the father-son relationship has overshadowed the appointment process.
When the board met this week the deck was reshuffled as McCormack offered to withdraw his resignation and return to the board and Forst, the chairman of the Budget Committee, told the selectmen that since his vice chairman was leaving the committee, he was taking himself out of the running.
When Guarino opened the floor to the public, John Funk said "the vilification of McCormack was illegitimate and uncalled for" and urged the selectmen to invite him to reconsider his resignation and ask him to complete his term.
Funk was echoed by Caroline Baldwin, who noted that McCormack resigned after disclosing that Police Chief Joe Collins told the selectboard he was retiring in a non-public session.
"Why is the retirement of the Police Chief a secret?" she asked. "It makes no sense. All the town's business is being done behind closed door. We don't know what's happening," she continued. "Let's get the public's business back in the public."
Rising to speak, McCormack confessed, "I made an error of judgement" and vowed "it won't happen again." He handed the selectmen a letter and said that he was willing to complete his term. "It's your call," he remarked.
"Be sure that something happens tonight," said David Russell, one of several voices calling for a timely decision. "It's not fair to the people not to have a full complement on the board."
Without using names, Stan Bean cautioned against appointing Currier, saying that the perception of the father serving on the selectboard and the son as police chief "would not be good for the town. There is enough division in the town without adding more," he remarked.
With Forst stepping aside, Guarino and Jean agreed to consider three candidates — Currier, Hatch and McCormack. But, the field quickly shrunk to two when Jean moved to appoint McCormack and Guarino replied, "I don't hear a second." He explained that McCormack not only disclosed the chief's decision to retire but also his recommendation that Matt Currier succeed him, which Guarino described as a "hiring" issue. "I have a problem with this," he said.
Jean moved to appoint Hatch, who with five years as a selectman was "the most experienced candidate." Guarino seconded the motion "for discussion," then said, "it would unbalance the board," claiming that he differed with Hatch over funding for the Gilmanton Year-Round Library and other issues.
"I've given you three people," Jean said, "and you refuse to compromise."
Guarino produced an e-mail, sent by former town administrator Arthur Capello, indicating that Jean initiated a petitioned warrant article to tighten the definition of conflict of interest in the town's personnel policy. He charged that while he was voting for a candidate — Currier — Jean was "biased" against him.
"This is outrageous," a resident shouted, prompting a round of applause. "Make a decision," echoed another to more applause.
Again Jean pressed for the appointment of Hatch, moving Guarino, who has highlighted the 278 write-in votes for selectman Currier polled in March, to ask "how many votes did she get last spring?" At that McCormack withdrew his candidacy and left the room and Jean moved to adjourn.
"I've had juries out for two weeks," said Mark Sisti, an attorney who is also town moderator, who added: "You guys have to talk this out." He was joined by Debra Cornett, the Town Clerk/Tax Collector, who earlier implored the selectmen "to get over the negativity, stop bashing each other and make a decision," and others grown impatient and frustrated with the stalemate.
Still pressing Currier's candidacy, Guarino reminded Jean that the New Hampshire Municipal Association found that his appointment would not represent a conflict of interest. Unpersuaded Jean replied "you're being stubborn to put it plain and simple appoint Rachel. Do it," he declared as someone called out "everybody loves her."
Paul Branscombe, the newly appointed town administrator, reminded the selectmen that if one were to be unable to serve, town government would come to a halt.
With the pressure mounting, Guarino appeared as comfortable as a worm on a fish hook, but continued to hold out.
"It's an embarrassment, Don," interrupted John Funk. "End it."
"Who am I embarrassing?" Guarino asked.
"All of us," someone answered. "Yourself," said another.
Sisti, who earlier was reluctant to intervene, explained that the issue was "the appearance of a conflict of interest." He said that if Currier joined the selectboard, both he as a selectman and his son as the police chief would be compromised. "People will talk," he said. "It's not fair to Brett, and it's not fair to Matt."
Currier, who had sat silently throughout the discussion, was having none of it. "I should have been in that seat when McCormack resigned," he said, adding that Jean opposed his appointment because of his opinion about the year-round library. Currier's wife Brenda also spoke in his support.
Cornett urged the board to appoint "a candidate who is neutral. Stop bickering and pointing fingers," she continued, "Enough is enough."
After a brief silence, Jean moved to appoint Hatch and this time Guarino, drained and spent, concurred.