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Meeting marked by bad behavior

NORTHFIELD — Incivility has once again reared its ugly head at this week’s Selectboard meeting.

And, once again, the hot topic was the Police Department.

On crutches and healing from a Nov. 6 ankle surgery, Police Chief Leonard Crossman Jr. offered to work reduced hours, taking care of the department’s administrative work and drafting a budget to help the department transition to an acting chief.

The topic came up at the board’s Oct. 30 meeting as well. The room was packed, with more than 25 residents in attendance, many speaking out against the chief’s proposal.

The board agreed to postpone a decision on the matter until the chief could address those concerns, which he did at Tuesday’s meeting.

As Crossman set aside his crutches and took a seat with the board Tuesday, Gray made a failed attempt at humor.

“Which foot am I not supposed to kick?” he asked the chief. Nobody laughed, and it did not improve the tone of the meeting.

Kathleen Wright, Selectboard chairwoman, told residents at Tuesday’s meeting that public comment would not be accepted during that night’s discussion of Crossman’s hours. She said enough concerns had been raised at the previous meeting, and that it was time to hear from Crossman, and make a decision.

That didn’t stop residents from speaking out.

Paul Gorzekowski asked to speak, and was denied by Wright, at which point he took a seat at the board’s table, and had his say anyway.

Afterward, Gray told Wright he invited Gorzekowski to speak.

“It is my duty to invite them (to speak),” Wright told Gray. “And I really do not respect you overriding me time after time.”

“You haven’t respected me in a long time, Kathy,” Gray countered.

Earlier this fall, Crossman decided not to renew his three-year contract in January because he won’t be able to fulfil the physical aspects of the job for medical reasons.

Though voices were raised and tempers flared Tuesday, Crossman remained level-headed throughout the meeting. He said the night’s dysfunction was what he was trying to avoid by not coming to the board’s last meeting.

“What I was trying to avoid wound up being exactly what I got, just for offering to help,” he said. Crossman said he thought the fact that he wouldn’t be renewing his contract was enough to satisfy his critics.

“This town deserves better,” he continued. “A small group of citizens shouldn’t be able to influence the Police Department, and other town departments and matters.”

Gray continued to harangue the chief throughout their meeting.

“I should probably just let you get up and hobble out of here,” he told Crossman at one point.

Tom Hutcheson, town administrator, had been asked to review the progress he’s made since his one-year evaluation was completed. He gave a detailed outline of his tasks and trainings for the last six months, and Wright was satisfied and about to move on to other business when residents spoke up.

“This is a democracy, not a dictatorship,” said Scott Milton, approaching the board though he had not been recognized by the chair. “He does his own review?”

Hutcheson said the review was simply an update to the board, rather than an evaluation, which is done yearly.

Gray then told Wright he was concerned that she wasn’t letting the public speak. It raised the question of when residents may speak at a meeting, and whether the chair has the authority to keep them from doing so.

Wright cited the state’s open meeting law, which states that “no person shall address a meeting of a public body without permission of the chair, and all persons shall, at the request of the chair, be silent.”

The law goes on to say that the chair may remove members of the public for disrupting a meeting.

Residents also have a way to remove an elected official, such as a Selectboard member, through a process that starts with a petition. It was drafted and adopted by residents last year, amid similar troubles among the previous Selectboard’s members. This fall, it was signed into law by the governor.

The previous board, on which Gray, Wright and former member Bonnie L’Etoile served, frequently had arguments. Though L’Etoile and Gray usually teamed up, overriding Wright’s vote, but now the tables have turned. Gray is often the lone wolf, frequently drawing out board discussions, and arguing his points to the bitter end.

Tuesday, he interrupted the chairwoman numerous times, often raising his voice when doing so.

The board this year voted to keep its summer schedule of bi-weekly meetings, even as they headed into the busier fall season. Spanbauer and Wright both said they wanted to minimize the time they subjected themselves to the negativity that’s plagued their meetings, while Gray moved that the board resume weekly meetings.

Despite drawn-out discussions, raised voices, and in-fighting, the board was able to do quite a bit of business Tuesday.

Selectboard meetings are televised live on BNCTV, channel 17 in Bernardston and Northfield. Tuesday’s and past meetings can be viewed online anytime at www.vimeo.com/bnctv. Its archive currently goes back to April of 2010, when Wright, Jack Spanbauer, and Nick Fleck served on the board.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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