, Newburyport, MA

March 19, 2013

Controversy erupts over selectman's resignation

Other candidates don't like plan to fill seat

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK — The late winter storm set to hit today might be inconsequential compared to the post-election controversy swirling over how to fill the vacancy created when recently elected selectman’s candidate Eric Small declined to serve due to health issues.

On Thursday, two days after beating five others to win the seat, Small delivered a letter to Town Clerk Bonnie Fowler, saying he would not serve due to health concerns. Learning of the situation on Friday morning, selectmen met in non-public emergency session with town counsel to consider their options, since Small was scheduled to be sworn in at 5 that afternoon, according to Selectman Aboul Khan. Khan said on Friday that selectmen are legally allowed to meet in non-public session with their attorney without posting the meeting beforehand.

Khan said he and selectmen Ed Hess and Brendan Kelly, under the advice of Town Counsel Robert Ciandella, consulted Seabrook’s town charter to see how it recommends addressing vacancies in town offices. Although Kelly lost his bid for re-election, he was still officially a selectman until his replacement took the oath of office.

Under the Seabrook town charter, when a vacancy occurs in any town office, unless state law stipulates otherwise, the Board of Selectmen may appoint someone to fill the vacancy until the next election, “provided that whenever possible the selectmen shall appoint the runner-up of the previous election.” If there is no runner-up, the charter continues, “then the selectmen shall appoint an eligible person to serve,” but again, only until the next election.

According to the town clerk’s official tally, Small was the winner of last Tuesday’s town election with 327 votes, retired Seabrook teacher Raymond Smith was the runner-up with 279 votes, followed by candidates Maria Y. Brown with 176, Kelly with 152, Paula J. Wood with 92 and Paul Knowles with 59.

On Friday, Khan said Ciandella asked Interim Town Manager Joe Titone to contact Smith to see if he would serve until the next election. Khan said Smith agreed to do so, but he was not appointed by selectmen because they intend to address the issue in public session.

In an interview yesterday, Smith said he got a call on Friday from Titone, and went to Town Hall to meet with the town manager at about 4 p.m. on Friday.

“I met with the town manager and I agreed that if appointed I would serve until the next election, and I signed a letter saying that,” Smith said. “But I didn’t meet with the selectmen, and I wasn’t sworn in. Each of the selectmen came out one at a time to wish me luck, but they didn’t say I had the position.”

Smith said he expects the issue to be debated and finalized at a public session, but he hasn’t been told when that would be.

However, three of the candidates who lost the election — Brown, Knowles and Wood — claim the selectmen acted incorrectly. They content selectmen should not have met in non-public session without posting the meeting, and that the runner-up should not have been contacted and asked to serve. They also believe a message posted on Smith’s Facebook page leads them to believe Smith’s appointment may actually have been made on Friday.

Smith said Brown, Knowles and Wood may have misinterpreted his Facebook postings and his presence in Town Hall and insisted he wasn’t appointed.

Brown said in the past, when vacancies occur on town boards or commissions, selectmen have often asked for letters of interest from those willing to serve. Once all the letters are in, she said, selectmen may appoint people based on those letters.

Wood, who was at Town Hall on Friday afternoon, said selectmen have again worked improperly behind closed doors to decide an issue that should have been publicly handled.

“It’s not about losing the election, because I’ve lost elections before,” Wood said. “It’s about the process. It’s about a lack of transparency. That’s why I ran, to make sure things happen the right way.”

In addition, Knowles said, he filed for a recount of the selectmen’s race, and everything should have been put on hold until the recount is completed. The recount is scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m., he said.

Small didn’t comment yesterday on how his successor should be determined or appointed. However, he said the reason he declined to serve after being elected was because of the mounting stress he felt both during and after the race.

A former Seabrook selectman and Hampton Falls town administrator for decades, Small said after retiring he was urged to run for office by Khan. But as the pressure of the election mounted, Small, who has a history of coronary illness, began to question the wisdom of his decision.

“My purpose for running at the time was because I thought I could help out the town,” Small said. “But the election became very stressful.”

The Friday before Tuesday’s election, Small said he experienced symptoms similar to those he had six years ago, when he had a coronary event that landed him in the hospital.

“I had been through so much anxiety over this,” Small said yesterday. “And I know that stress and heart attacks go hand in hand. I thought I should get out now, let them appoint someone to replace me and let the town move forward.”