Wakefield PB meeting turns into free-for-all
May 20, 2009
WAKEFIELD — The Wakefield Planning Board's intentions to change its rules of procedures defining an alternate's role and seating were challenged at its May 7 meeting in an unruly hour-long discussion that led to heated arguments, raised voices, political accusations and a disallowed board vote.
At the center of the debate was a proposal to scale back the role of alternates on the planning board, who have been seated with the board for at least a year. Town Counsel Rick Sager recommended that the board relocate its alternates to the audience—where they had sat for years—unless they are appointed to take the place of a disqualified or absent member. He said this would bring Wakefield in line with past practice and state law.
On May 7, alternate Dave Mankus told the board this was not correct. "It was misquoted at the last meeting when [Sager] was here that it is an RSA. But it is not—it's left to individual towns," he said. "We found four towns that actually allow alternates to sit at the table as Jerry and I have been. Four towns in New Hampshire."
"And how many towns are there in New Hampshire?" replied Vice-Chair Donna Faucette, laughing.
Mankus continued. "It is very open," he said of those towns. Further, he claimed an email from a state employee to board members that appeared to support moving alternates to the audience was "merely the opinion of one particular person," and an unclear one at that.
"When I spoke with him in person, he said that identifying the non-voting members, the alternates, was really his prime consideration, and he said that he absolutely agreed with alternates being kept up to speed," said Mankus, an alternate for more than a year.
Faucette and member Peg Stevenson maintained that they never felt isolated as alternates in the audience. "When I was an alternate, I sat in the front row," said Faucette, who spent three years there. Stevenson—who was elected March 11—began her time as an alternate in the crowd, then moved to the table when former planning board member Nancy Spencer-Smith became increasingly unable to fulfill her obligations.
"This started when we were doing three administrative meetings trying to do the zoning, and any administrative meeting, we always sat at," said Faucette. "And then, we didn't really sit at the table. In fact, [member Al Huntoon] and I never sat at the table. We were so far out."
Mankus and O'Connor also questioned the timing of the board's return to old procedures, which occurred around 10:40 a.m. on March 12, the day after they lost their respective bids for planning board and selectman.
Had the outcomes of the past two town elections been differently, Mankus said it was unlikely that alternate seating would be an issue: "If the two of you [Stevenson and Faucette] were still sitting here as alternates, then I don't think we'd be having this discussion tonight," he said.
Board members claimed they didn't know what emails they were talking about. O'Connor described an email between Town Planner Kathy Menici and a senior planner at the state Office of Energy and Planning dated March 11.
Mankus added that, in his opinion, the board had more important issues to address at that meeting, meaning that alternate seating made the agenda for political—not practical—reasons. "After having failed at two major warrant articles that the planning board put forward, the first subject that was worked on after that morning after the election was where Jerry and I sit, which to me says that it's a political priority," he said.
Faucette retorted that Mankus has "a persecution complex," which upset resident Charlie Edwards. "I don't think it's a joke," he said. "I don't see why you're laughing."
"I think it's rude," added O'Connor, who rose from his seat with a copy of the Carroll County Independent.
Claiming that Editor Larissa Mulkern's article "Alternates reminded of the limits to their authority" on April 23 "made me look like a fool," O'Connor said, "I want to know which one of you called her up and said that you would appreciate her ridiculing me on the front page of the paper for doing exactly what everybody else here has been doing for two or three years." [Editor's note: The article was based on meeting minutes, public documents and legal advice from the Local Government Center and was not intended to "ridicule" O'Connor, who was mentioned only once as an "alternate member."]
Most of the board claimed they hadn't read the story yet. Faucette began to read it from the table, with Chair Rod Cools curiously looking over her shoulder at times.
"If you can't take the heat, get out the door," responded Selectmen's Representative Johnny Blackwood.
Cools—a nine-year member who spent two years as an alternate in the audience—stressed that when an alternate is not needed to fill in for an absent, recused or disqualified member, he or she is no different than any other resident. "Each and every one of us is a member of the planning board except for them, they're alternates," he explained. "They're only members of the planning board when they've been appointed… The rest of the time they're the same as anybody in the audience. That's how the rules are."
And Blackwood said the rules are that way for a reason. He noted an incident earlier in the meeting when O'Connor tried to join a discussion regarding a cell tower he had previously made a decision on in a member's absence. Faucette asked him to hold his comments until the public hearing, and a disagreement ensued in front of the applicants. "If he had been sitting out in the audience tonight, we wouldn't have had this little outburst from Jerry," concluded Blackwood.
Resident Relf Fogg was concerned with the impact the issue was having on the taxpayers. "How much money is the town spending to pay the town planner to contact the town attorney to address this issue?" he asked, to which Menici clarified that town counsel had contacted her, not vice-versa. Fogg also inquired why alternates can sit with members on a Superior Court jury, but not a small-town planning board.
Cools called it "a totally different thing." Shouting resulted between Cools and Fogg, who continued to argue his case.
"Excuse me, I am the chairman of this meeting… You're done," said Cools.
"I'm talking about service to the public, and what this board is suggesting is not service to the public," Fogg interjected. "I have been here many times witnessing a self-serving board and it disgusts me."
"I'm sorry, I don't know where you get this crap," replied Cools, who then began shouting at Fogg and another audience member. "You keep quiet. You didn't raise your hand. Keep your mouth shut, I'm telling you right now. One more comment, the cops will be here and both of you will be out of here."
Faucette continued to defend the board's traditional procedures. "You didn't hear me whining in front of the TV that I was being persecuted. And I take offense to the fact that you think I'm persecuting you," she said. "I'm sorry, I'm not persecuting you, Jerry. I have nothing against you."
But Mankus argued that amending the rule permanently disqualified O'Connor and himself by placing them where recused members would sit and keeping them from accessing crucial documents and plans.
"The participation of alternates varies from town to town, and there's no real law that says that we can't sit at the table," said O'Connor.
Cools agreed that "each town decides what they want to do." However, he said that a smaller board is better for Wakefield because applicants "become intimidated by a larger board." He accused O'Connor and Mankus trying to make him and the board "look stupid."
Resident Tom Dube thought the board should be more inclusionary. "I would just question, from the public's standpoint, why they can't sit up there. I don't see the difference, whether they can speak or not," he said, adding, "There's room there."
Fogg said that leaving the rule as is would lead to more informed decisions for the town. "It seems as though that paragraph, if it was left alone, it would allow that alternate to hear that whole case and make decisions," he said. "And I see an opportunity for a whole board member missing three hearings, coming in and sitting on the fourth hearing, and making the decision misinformed or uninformed and not up to speed, whereas the alternate may have all of the knowledge and has been with the case all along."
Cools said minutes would allow the member to catch up and make an informed decision.
Stevenson motioned to amend the rules of procedure regarding alternates, and it passed by a unanimous vote. The vote was disqualified soon after.
O'Connor, reading rule 7 of the board's own rules of procedure (last amended on July 10, 2008), noted that the amendment must be read in its final language at two meetings, posted with public notice. He gave a copy of the rules to Menici, who did not bring hers.
Voices rose again on the board and in the crowd. Cools said that the board would just vote the same way again; meanwhile, Menici determined that O'Connor was right and the amendment would need to be placed on two more agendas.
As the board moved on after roughly an hour of heated discussion, Stevenson condemned the "animosity" she had witnessed.
"I think I resent some of the comments that have been made to attempt to embarrass the board here tonight," she said. "I'm not quite sure where all of this animosity has come from, but I don't think it has a place in a public meeting."
The Wakefield Planning Board meets on the first and second Thursdays of each month at 7 p.m. on the first floor of Wakefield Town Hall, 2 High Street in Sanbornville.