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Ashfield board struggles over impasse

ASHFIELD — After a volatile exchange that included accusations of personal attacks and gender bias, Selectboard members have agreed to come to their next meeting with ideas on how to resolve a rift among themselves that Selectboard member Ron Coler said is making the board “dysfunctional.”

In a heated board meeting on Sept. 27 that was taped by several people, Chairman Doug Field vowed to “go more by the selectmen’s handbook, and make sure we run the meeting the way we’re supposed to run it .”

Exchanges between Coler and Selectboard member Paulette Leukhardt during the 21∕ 2 -hour meeting were very heated.

“You confound me,” Coler told Leukhardt. “Everything you say is for the effect on the audience — not for the board that serves with you. ... I would add that you have no respect for the chair, the board, or for the process.”

Coler also accused her of “surprise attacks that don’t instill teamwork.”

Leukhardt fired back, saying that Coler had started his selectmen’s term with a seven-page document that was critical of her. She said he sprang his criticisms at the end of a Selectboard meeting, without warning. “I would categorize that as an attack on me,” she said.

“You have done the very same things and started this whole thing down the road. You attacked me, now you don’t like it when it comes back.”

Leukhardt also said Coler had a “snarky attitude.” She said she had enjoyed her years on the board before Coler’s election, and had gotten along with other board members.

“You speak rudely, you speak rudely to the people who come before us,” Leukhardt said. “I don’t care if you two don’t like my tone of voice, because I’ve had it with you for five months.”

She said the two men “have both exposed this board to gender discrimination — and I’m not going to let you off the hook with that.”

One example she gave of gender bias, was that her suggestions for agenda items were not as likely to be put on the list as Field’s or Coler’s.

Earlier in the meeting, there had been sharp disagreement between Leukhardt and her two colleagues over how the board’s meeting minutes are done, and on the amount of time spent amending or correcting them.

Coler, who had put the board’s behavior on the board’s agenda, said he would have rather addressed the board’s differences “over a beer”— in private conversations — but couldn’t do so on account of the state’s Open Meeting Law.

Coler suggested the board consider mediation, as a way to break through their gridlock.

“We have a crisis to get rid of the disrespect, the gender bias and the anger,” Leukhardt agreed. “If I had to sit and watch these board meetings, I would never want to be on (the board.)”

When Field asked how the board can solve the problem, Leukhardt suggested board members come back on Oct. 10 with thoughts on how to resolve their differences.

“I would like us to function as a team,” she said. “Why don’t we come to the table with our concerns and discuss a solution?”

The board agreed to try to work out its problems, so that they can work better together even when they have disagreements.

When reached for comment after the meeting, Field said the selectboard meetings started becoming more contentious about a year ago, when residents from the Ashfield House brought complaints about the public housing complex to selectmen. He said those issues have not yet been resolved.

Field said past Selectboard Chairmen Dave DeHerdt and Ted Murray limited public input to a designated “public comment” period on the agenda, while Field’s predecessor, Norman Russell, allowed public comment throughout the meeting.

“I tried to have (public comment) anytime, but it was getting out of hand,” said Field. “It comes out one-sided. It’s too bad this is going on.”

Citing the Massachusetts Selectmen’s Handbook, Field said he would no longer accept public comments throughout Selectboard meetings, except during a specified public comment period at the end of the meetings.

Later on, Selectman Ron Coler asked Field “to run a more controlled meeting.”

“You need to run it — not the audience,” Coler told Field. Reading from Robert’s Rules of Order, Coler said “it is the responsibility of the chairman to preserve decorum and to rule inappropriate comments out of order.”

Of the clashes between Selectboard members, Field said “I don’t know where the end is. I’m frustrated. I know a lot of people in Ashfield are frustrated.

“We’ll get through it,” he added. “Right now, it’s a bump in the road, and we’ll get through it.”

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