Freedom – After two hours of sometimes-heated testimony and debate Thursday, June 2, Freedom selectmen accepted petitions seeking to recall two from their own ranks, setting a July 26 date for a referendum.
In what is fast becoming a regular event in Freedom, the selectboard received a separate petition – this one seeking a moratorium on wind energy development (see below). That petition is the fifth petition to come before the board in the last two months.
The recall petitions, circulated by Joseph Richardson Sr., accuse selectboard Chairman Ronald Price and board member Clint Spaulding of discussing town business outside of posted meetings, voting on issues when they had conflicts of interest, and firing a town employee without justification. Richardson has previously said he was the town employee who was wrongly fired.
When the petitions were first presented to the selectboard May 23, Price and Spaulding each declined to comment. Selectman Brian Jones, who joined the board in March, made a motion at that meeting to recess for the 10 days – the time period allowed by law – in order to give all parties time to consider the petitions.
The board reconvened at the Freedom town office June 2, before a room of 25 residents, including parties on either side of an unresolved issue around the purchase of a $250,000 fire truck that has been the subject of two previous petitions, unrelated to the recalls.
Price was the first to speak on the recalls, addressing each of the four charges leveled against him by petitioners.
Since he was first elected to the board 2007, Price said, he has worked with four other selectmen and has always tried to carry out his duties to the best of his ability, “to be fair in the deliberations I’ve participated in and to recuse myself from the things that I shouldn’t participate in, and that’s basically dealing with windmills.”
Price said he was “disturbed a great deal” by the charges in the petition because Richardson has charged him with “things that he has no knowledge of.”
The selectman objected to having his place of employment named as the alleged location of unofficial meetings between selectmen, adding that he had only seen the petitioner, Richardson, there on one or two occasions since 2007.
“I don’t know how he could have any knowledge of any meetings that were held in that area by me or any other selectmen,” Price said.
Price went on to say that a number of his fellow selectmen have visited him at his workplace, including Spaulding and former selectboard members Tim Biggs and Carol Richardson. But these conversations dealt with minor issues relating to the selectmen’s duties as overseers of the public works departments road commissioners, he said.
“Truck 8 needs new air canisters. Truck 7 has a broken spring. Things of this nature that were discussed and dealt with on an as-needs basis,” he said.
At no time, Price said, were decisions made about money, or about the greater management of the town.
“There are a lot of issues that come up in the town [between meetings] … it’s almost impossible to not have some kind a conversation with your contemporaries at some time or other,” Price said. “If I’m guilty of anything, I’m guilty of that. I don’t make any apologies to anybody for it because I don’t think I did anything wrong.”
On the charge that he held illegal executive sessions, Price said he has always followed the law. He added that he doesn’t like executive, or closed-door, sessions, but they are sometimes necessary.
Price rejected the charge that he had voted on issues in which he had a conflict of interest. He had sat in on conversations and given his opinion, he said, but never voted in those cases.
“I’m innocent, but if the people of this town think they can find somebody to do this job better or want this job, then when we go to vote, vote for it,” he said. “I’ve done the best I could do. I’m not holding my head down for anything.”
Price, and later Spaulding, defended the firing of any town employee as within the rights of the selectmen.
Richardson asked Price who the employee was who was fired. When Price turned the question back on his accuser, Richardson took out a termination letter and asked Jones to read it aloud. Jones declined, saying it was a personnel issue. Richardson asked if he could read it himself.
“You’re a citizen,” Jones said. “Of course.”
“I want to know why I was fired,” Richardson said, after reading the letter aloud. He started to elaborate on his question, but Jones slammed the gavel, insisting that personnel issues not be discussed in a public meeting.
“Then where should they be discussed?” Richardson asked.
In a closed-door session, the selectmen responded, to which Richardson said he never had the opportunity.
Richardson pressed and several other residents questioned why he wasn’t given a reason, but the board held firm. It was a personnel issue and the selectmen didn’t have to give a reason, they said.
Spaulding initially kept his remarks brief, saying that he had sought legal advice about the petition against Price, on which he would be required to vote, and was advised that the document was invalid because the wrong statute was cited and other procedural details were left out.
Former Selectman Tim Biggs weighed in. “The way this looks to me,” he said, “is one guy loses his job, gets pissed off and he causes all this ruckus, which makes it very unpleasant for everybody … does it really warrant a petition to remove a selectman? I don’t think so.”
Other residents cast doubts on the selectmen, alleging various biases, and challenging the reluctance of the selectmen to give Richardson a reason for firing him. Resident and former selectman Steve Bennett accused the selectmen of overspending the town’s budget by $20,000 without calling a special town meeting – a charge unrelated to the petitions.
Resident Mary Spinelli questioned Spaulding about work he did for the town, which she said related to the conflict of interest alleged on the recall petition.
Spaulding, who co-owns a trucking company, said one of his vehicles did some work in town, filling in for another company. A selectman can bid on any work in town as long as he doesn’t vote on it, Spaulding said, adding that he had no financial interest when he voted on the contract for the work.
“It’s become harder and harder to conduct municipal business without a professional,” Town Attorney Bill Kelly told VillageSoup during the five-minute recess that followed. “There are so many technicalities, so much law, so many nuances.”
When the meeting reconvened, Kelly spoke to the assembled residents, reiterating his earlier opinion that the petitions were valid because the omissions were not substantive and the intent was clear.
The town attorney painted a picture of the two options before the selectboard: accept the petitions and let them go to a vote, or reject them and potentially head down a path of consuming legal actions.
Kelly advised for the first, and he cautioned against attempting to rejecting the petitions based on procedural technicalities, saying that courts are inclined to let citizens vote and not to put up procedural hurdles.
If the selectmen did not accept the petitions, Kelly said the law allows a notary to call a special town meeting. A number of entanglements could come out this, he said, and residents seemed to feel these immediately as a lengthy discussion ensued about the responsibilities and liabilities of the town if a notary were to call a town meeting, particularly if that notary was the town clerk.
“I didn’t write the script, I’m just telling you what the statute says,” Kelly said. “It’s very, very short in its text.”
Jones attempted a recap the options, but stumbled on the uncertainty of what would happen if the selectmen refused to move the petitions forward.
“Obviously the law doesn’t have any answers for us,” said Jones. “It only has potential consequences for any action we take, correct?”
Kelly thought for a moment.
“Well, it gives us guidance,” the attorney said. “I don’t know if that’s an answer but the law gives guidance and then there are consequences one way or the other.”
But approving the petitions would prevent any of the numerous potential legal pitfalls, he said.
“It’s all about the vote at that point,” he said. “It’s not about any procedure. Because we’re dead certain the selectboard can move these articles forward. There’s no question about that.”
Jones opened the floor again to public comment, and Bennett pushed the selectmen to accept the recall petitions saying it was “the will of the people.”
“The Selectboard should follow through,” he said. “That’s the honorable thing to do.”
Richardson also pushed for a vote, saying to Price and Spaulding, “If you two haven’t got nothing to hide whatsoever, we’ll go ahead and have the hearing and if there’s nothing to hide or whatever, people are going to either have the vote or not to have it … What’s the big deal?”
Jones, who has previously spoken out against the revisiting issues outside of the normal process of government, said his concern with the petitions was one of process.
Residents seeking a vote through the petition process must collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. In Freedom, this means 34 signatures.
“I tick off 34 people because of my opinion on X, Y, Z and suddenly we have another election,” Jones said. “There is something to be said for protecting the continuity and dignity of the board … Even if you don’t have anything to hide, it’s still a disruptive process.”
“I have nothing to hide,” said Spaulding, directing his comments to Richardson. “I don’t think I have to justify myself to you or anyone else.”
“I didn’t either, and this is what I got,” said Richardson, holding up his termination letter.
Jones again expressed concerns that petitions require a small number of signatures, adding his frustration that a petition can list reasons that may not have any basis in fact.
He asked for a motion, and when none came, he recessed the meeting again for five minutes.
After some additional discussion, Spaulding made a motion to accept the petition to recall Price, noting that it was contrary to the advice of his attorney. The vote passed.
Price followed suit, making a motion to accept the petition to recall Spaulding, noting the comment made by Bennett that allowing the recalls to go through was the “honorable thing to do.” Price said he didn’t often agree with Bennett, but felt he was right in this case.
The vote to accept the second petition passed and the selectmen set a date of July 26 for the referendum, with a public hearing date to be determined. Speaking on June 7, Jones said the referendum would include a vote on the fire truck in addition to the two recall petitions, and might include a vote on the proposed wind moratorium and adoption of the town’s comprehensive plan.
The recall petitions were the main topic of discussion Thursday night, but the meeting opened like many others of late: Town Clerk Cynthia Abbott presenting the selectboard with a new petition.
This one, circulated by Steve Bennett, would enact a six-month moratorium on permits for new industrial wind developments, retroactive to June 2.
Bennett, who lives near and has been outspoken against the three-turbine Beaver Ridge Wind development, said he had heard from several residents abutting the development who claimed to have been approached by Beaver Ridge Wind with proposals to erect additional turbines.
The petition text cited a number of problems with the Beaver Ridge Wind development, built in late 2008, including, among other things, noise and blade flicker, which have caused several longtime residents to move or sell their homes.
Bennett said the language of the proposed moratorium itself – a legal litany that took Selectman Jones more than five minutes to read aloud – was borrowed from the town of Hope, while the reasons listed were evidently specific to Freedom.
The selectmen voted to table the petition. Bennett asked if this would invalidate it.
He did not get an answer from the selectmen, but Town Attorney Kelly later gave his opinion to VillageSoup that tabling the petition would not render it invalid.
The selectmen took up the petition again on Monday, June 6, but tabled it after a lengthy discussion, according to Selectman Brian Jones.
Jones said there were several points in the petition rationale that caused objections, including a accusation that Beaver Ridge Wind failed to live up to any of its promises.
The issue is scheduled for discussion at a special selectmen’s meeting Monday, June 13 at 6 p.m.
In other business, the selectboard:
• Hired the accounting firm RHR Smith & Co. of Buxton to complete the town’s 2009 and 2010 audits for the quoted price of $6,000 each. Jones said the firm anticipated starting immediately and being finished by August. A separate firm recently completed the town’s 2008 audit and billed the town for $11,000.
The selectmen also hired RHR Smith to complete a revaluation of the Beaver Ridge Wind development. Jones said BRW has provided the town with its 2008 and 2009 audits. The selectman expressed hope that the coming revaluation would put to rest the concerns of residents and the developer alike that the turbines had been incorrectly assessed. The selectmen set aside money for the task not to exceed $2,000.
• Directed the town treasurer to put $10,000 from an expired CD into a savings account. The town had been earning 0.2 percent, and Jones said the selectmen are considering pooling the town’s liquid assets, currently separated by department, in order to negotiate a better rate of investment.
The town’s books would continue to account for each department independently, but the money itself could earn more interest if it were combined in a single investment, he said.
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