August 15, 2018WAKEFIELD — In response to a statement read by former public works director Leigh Nichols during public comment at the July 25 selectmen's meeting, Town Counsel Rick Sager read a statement as the board met again last week, and then attempted to answer questions from the audience.
"I have been asked to respond to a prepared statement read into the record two weeks ago by former town employee Leigh Nichols, and also to address the public input portion of regular selectmen's meetings," Sager read.
He first addressed the public input portion of selectmen's meetings.
"To be clear, the selectmen are under no legal obligation to allow anyone to speak at a public meeting. . . the public's right to speak at a regular selectmen's meeting does not exist under the law. The public's right in regards to public meetings is to listen and observe — nothing more."
Sager added that the selectmen do not even have to prepare a posted agenda for meetings, as Wakefield does, noting that the word "agenda" does not even appear in the state's Right to Know law, RSA 91-A.
"This is not to say that the selectmen want to curtail public input. They do not," his statement went on. "Their preference is that no member of the public would seek to abuse the privilege to speak during a selectmen's meeting in furtherance of defaming a town employee or in furtherance of his or her personal agenda. However, with that being said, the selectmen also are saddled with a responsibility to its employees and the public in general, and will not tolerate the use of its meetings to serve as a Facebook-like forum to lash out against others — including Town employees.
"Therefore, effective immediately, and until further notice, the selectmen are limiting public input during their meetings to one session, and thereby eliminating the second session usually held near the end of the meeting. As always, comments are to be limited to agenda items and be three minutes or less each. At any time, any selectman can stop a public comment if it appears to be outside of an agenda item topic, lasting longer than three minutes, or for any other reason. Again, the ability of the public to speak at regular selectmen's meetings is a privilege, not a right, and the selectmen will not tolerate such a privilege being abused as occurred two weeks ago tonight."
Accusation against Collins addressed
Sager's statement then took up the accusation made by Leigh Nichols against Town Administrator Kelley Collins that she attempted to get Nichols' wife fired from her elected position of tax collector. Angie Nichols was re-elected to that position in March. He cited a letter Collins sent to selectmen on July 11 concerning "The Duties of the Tax Collector." This reporter was provided with a copy of that letter by making a Freedom of Information request.
Collins' letter brings up "a potentially serious issue within the office of the Tax Collector." Tax Collector Angie Nichols took five days off in early July, closing her office rather than have Deputy Tax Collector Jill Garnett keep it open and deposit property tax payments. As a result, payments of property taxes could not be deposited until Nichols returned. Collins pointed out that on July 11 the town received $35,796.46 in payments.
Collins cited RSA 41:35 that requires a tax collector to deposit "…at least on a weekly basis, or daily whenever receipts total $1,500 or more."
In her letter, Collins acknowledges concerns Nichols had with her deputy and discloses that "I have had more than one conversation with her about replacing Mrs. Garnett," which is something state law allows. A draft advertisement for a replacement was prepared for Nichols but she took no action on it before her vacation.
"Now we have two issues," Collins wrote to selectmen. "The first issue is that we have no one who is depositing anything in excess of $1,500 per day for five days because Angie has not designated the deputy to do so, and second, we do not seem to have a viable deputy tax collector."
Sager read in his statement, "Despite Mr. Nichols' allegations to the contrary, the [Town Administrator] did not, and does not, seek to have Angie removed. Moreover, the selectmen lack the power to fire her, as she is an elected official, and must instead go through a somewhat involved process, which was never on the table insofar as the selectmen or the [Town Administrator] were concerned."
On the contrary, Sager asserted that "what may be surprising to many of you, the [Town Administrator] considers Angie to be the best tax collector she ever worked with. I know that Angie knows this because I shared those thoughts with her about an hour before Mr. Nichols accused the [Town Administrator] of seeking to fire Angie." He added that he had known Angie for years, that their children had gone to school together, and that she was "a good egg."
Question of Sager's impartiality
Sager addressed the question raised about his impartiality. "I cannot, and will not, comment on the various allegations made by Mr. Nichols surrounding his termination from employment with the Town. This is because of protections provided to employees under state and federal law.
"I will, however, respond to Mr. Nichols' comments about me, suggesting that because I work 'hand-in-hand' with the [Town Administrator], I was biased in her favor somehow, and thus wasn't doing my job as Town attorney."
Sager pointed out that, as Town Counsel, he works for the Board of Selectmen, not the Town Administrator.
Moreover, he added, "I have been at the forefront of firing employees in this town and in other towns as well, including town administrators. It's a rotten part of my job, but I do it. And no one is given a pass simply because we may work closely together."
Sager ended his statement with his appreciation of Kelley Collins as Town Administrator: "She is in the office at the town hall before most of us have had our first cup of coffee. She is well versed in the law. She works hard all day long. She is smart. She is opinionated, but also a good listener. She is willing to change her mind. She is not cuddly. She is intense. And in my opinion, and in the opinion of the board of selectmen … she is what the Town needs at this point in time. She is getting a lot done, and a lot needs to be done. She is dedicated."
Relf Fogg asked who authorized the opening of the envelopes with the payments while Angie Nichols was absent.
Sager said he did not know, but did point out that two people were there to witness the handling of the envelopes and checks. He added that the deputy tax collector is bonded.
Fogg followed up, asking if anyone had been penalized for late payment as a result of the delay. Leigh Nichols himself responded that payments are dated by postmark, not when opened. Sager said that those who were actually late making payments they had agreed to make on a payment plan were penalized. He observed that the selectmen have been very accommodating to residents who for good reason are unable to pay their taxes on time.
Selectman Vin Wallace raised another point, asking who made the decisions to prepare the statement Sager read and to drop the second public comment period. Sager responded that he had discussed both with Selectmen's Chair Lino Avellani.
Jim Miller said he appreciated the problem of people making inappropriate statements at public meetings, but asked how residents can complain about people otherwise.
Sager said that people can talk to the Town Administrator or write to the selectmen, and that "Complains about employees are protected by law," meaning that sometimes, there will be no response. The law does not require a response.
Later, he added, "You can also make an appointment with the board to discuss issues."
Leigh Nichols interjected that he never got a response to two letters and a talking with Collins.
Wallace pointed out that an employee can request a public hearing on complaints about him or her.
Fogg said he feels employees should take the same oath to serve as elected officials.
Sager responded that the town does have a personnel policy and that "you can be fired if you are not doing your job." He added that only selectmen can hire and fire.
Hope John asked how two selectmen can vote to limit public input.
Wallace responded that he himself would not support removing any public comment, and that he was not consulted.
Sager repeated that the decision came from his discussion with Chair Avellani. Selectman Connie Twombley was also not consulted, he said.
Avellani said that removing the second public comment was a suggestion by Sager, not a decision of the board.
There being no further questions, the discussion was closed.
Later, during the second public comment period, this reporter asked Chair Avellani whether the second comment period would be dropped from future meetings, since it was not clear from the discussion.
Avellani responded that no decision had been made, and the second public comment period would be continued as long as comments were appropriate.