, Newburyport, MA

March 19, 2013

In Seabrook, fill-ins have a contentious history

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK — The brouhaha brewing over how to fill a selectman’s vacancy after the recently elected Eric Small declined to serve isn’t the first time selectmen faced a controversy over how to handle sudden openings in major town offices.

Vacancies that have arisen among those elected to serve on town boards or committees typically have been filled without much ado, as letters of interest were solicited and selections made from those who applied.

But when hotly contested positions have suddenly come vacant mid-term, the process of determining who would take over has drawn such significant debate that at times they have divided the town into separate camps.

When the late Fire Chief Gerry Brown resigned his position in 1999, the issue of how to replace him caused a bit of a fuss. At the time, Seabrook’s fire chief was an elected officer, and selectmen decided they would follow the town charter’s recommendation and appoint Brown’s runner-up, Keith Sanborn, to serve the less than a year remaining until the next election.

However, disgruntled residents signed a petition requesting selectmen hold a special election. Selectmen rejected it, and they stayed with Sanborn.

But there was an even more contentious battle when former Selectman Burwell Pike stepped down in January 2000, just two months prior to the March election. How to handle the issue led to such a donnybrook, the town ended up in court.

The late Karen Knight had been the runner-up in the previous year’s election, and she expected selectmen to accept Pike’s resignation and appoint her to fill the vacancy, as they had done with Sanborn. Such action has the town charter and state law behind it, Knight said at the time.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, then selectmen Oliver Carter Jr. and Asa Knowles Jr., voted not to accept Pike’s resignation, eliminating the creation of a vacancy and the need to fill it. Their action caused Knight to file suit.

In the court finding, Judge Gillian Abramson ruled that since there were only 60 days to the next election, selectmen did have a choice in accepting Pike’s resignation. If they didn’t accept it, they could leave his seat empty, conducting town business without him until the March election.

If they did accept the resignation, however, Abramson ruled the town had to follow the town charter and appoint the runner-up, which would have been Knight.