The special selectboard meeting moved into the town administration offices to accommodate another group that had rented the conference room Saturday morning. Seated (left to right) are board members Dr. Josh Dein, Jerry Storey and Jaime Heins. Board chair Gary von Stange participated by speakerphone. Standing: Dr. Steven Metz (left) and Dr. Craig Bartlett, husband of selectboard member Dr. Colleen Parker, who recused herself. / Photo by Mike Donoghue.
By MIKE DONOGHUE
The Shelburne Selectboard has agreed the town should try to help facilitate a last-minute peace accord involving selectboard member Dr. Colleen Parker, Volunteer Fire Chief Jerry Ouimet and the Shelburne Ethics Committee.
Lawyers in the case have agreed to have Shelburne lawyer Ritchie Berger serve as a neutral mediator to try to resolve the dispute. The only possible hang-up is the lawyer for Parker said he is waiting to hear that the Ethics Committee has “adjourned” its scheduled hearing in the case for 7 p.m. Tuesday.
By 1:40 p.m. Sunday, Tom Little, acting chair of the ethics committee, responded by sending an email to the parties proposing to bump the hearing to Dec. 18, or some other time convenient to everybody. If accepted, it could pave the way for mediation session to be conducted in the three hours on Tuesday evening that the parties were scheduled to present their cases.
At a special selectboard meeting Saturday morning, the board directed its newest member Jaime Heins and Town Manager Joe Colangelo to contact the respective parties to determine if they would be willing to consider a neutral mediator to help bring closure to this two-month-old firestorm. The board said all parties would need to agree to the mediator.
Selectboard members Jerry Storey, Dr. Josh Dein and Heins all agreed that neither the Shelburne town attorney or nor his firm should serve as the intermediary. They preferred to select someone uninvolved.
Chairman Gary von Stange, who participated in the discussion by speakerphone, was open to using the town attorney or his firm. That brought a clearly audible negative response from the audience of about three dozen residents, including some saying “No.”
The board and residents agreed that action was needed quickly ahead of the hearing scheduled for Tuesday night with the ethics committee. The hearing was called to review the complaint filed by Ouimet against Parker for questions she asked him at a Sept. 26 meeting that he says demeaned his honesty, integrity and expertise. The September meeting was televised and is available online.
The hearing, if and when it is held, also is expected to consider Parker’s subsequent cross-complaint against Ouimet maintaining the chief’s claim was baseless and defamed her. Each case was allocated 90 minutes on Tuesday.
In addition to the unresolved ethics complaints, Parker filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday afternoon against the fire chief and the six members of the Ethics Committee claiming the defendants had subjected her to extreme emotional distress. Her Shelburne attorney Michael Regan tried to get Tuesday’s ethics hearing derailed by asking the committee to step aside because Parker is suing them.
Little, the acting ethics committee chairman, is a lawyer and said his quick research found case law supporting the board staying in place to hear the case.
Parker’s lawyer also has asked the ethics committee to reconsider whether there was probable cause for the claims against his client.
Meanwhile, Shelburne lawyer Pietro Lynn representing Ouimet, also has asked that the case against his client be dismissed because the ethics ordinance does not cover the post of the town’s volunteer fire chief. Colangelo, as town manager, agreed with that point.
After the Saturday meeting adjourned, Heins and Colangelo drafted an email to both Regan and Lynn with the mediator suggestion; it urged them to reply during the weekend to move the process along.
The one-paragraph message also was sent to Tom Little on behalf of the full ethics committee.
Besides Ouimet and Little, the other defendants in Parker’s lawsuit are: Lee Suskin, the regular chairman of the ethics committee; committee members Michael Ashooh, Bill Deming and Gwen Webster; and alternate member Peter Gadue.
Saturday’s selectboard meeting took about 90 minutes despite being scheduled for 30 minutes. Because the meeting room was rented by another group, the several dozen residents along with the town officials after an hour moved into the nearby town administration offices to finish the meeting. People squeezed into the smaller space and some sat on the floor to hear the board’s discussion.
There was strong sentiment in the group for trying to come to a peaceful settlement. Storey classified the situation as “a serious community problem.”
Ouimet and Parker did not attend the meeting, but their spouses were there. Parker’s husband, Dr. Craig Bartlett recorded the proceedings on a phone and was the only person to speak on behalf of his wife from among about a dozen speakers.
Little did not to attend the meeting, but sat in a nearby room at the town hall in case the selectboard had questions for the ethics committee.
The meeting began with a request by Dr. Steven Metz that von Stange, the chairman, disqualify himself from the meeting because of his previous comments supporting Parker. Von Stange later refused to step aside because he believed he had not commented on the evidence and could be fair and objective.
Selectboard member Dein said he had a different recollection of the Oct. 24 meeting where von Stange made an impassioned comment that he and Parker were on the same “team.” Dein said he thought such a comment about personal support for somebody would warrant removal under the ethics ordinance.
Von Stange disagreed. He reminded Dein that at the September meeting Storey called for a stop to the exchange that Parker started with Ouimet and no one believed Storey should recuse himself from the discussion at hand.
Dr. Metz, as the first speaker from the audience, also suggested that the feud could be over quickly. “All could be resolved with a simple apology from Dr. Parker to Chief Ouimet,” the retired veterinarian said.
Looking back at the start of the dispute, former selectboard member Chris Boyd said Parker should have raised her concerns about the fire chief’s possible conduct with the selectboard chairman. The chair then should have asked the town manager to talk with Ouimet in private.
“There is a process. She didn’t follow it. She owes Jerry an apology,” Boyd said.
Resident Sean Moran said he considered the mediation effort somewhat a “Hail Mary pass” because of the lateness, but thought every attempt should be made. “This has gone on much too long,” said Moran, also noting how Shelburne’s problems have become the talk of the area.
Shannon Warden, daughter of retired Police Chief James Warden, said Shelburne has a flawed governance system. She said it allowed for the town to underutilize the public safety expertise of Ouimet when Shelburne created a hazardous material ordinance, but yet the fire chief spent many hours consulting with the FBI earlier in the week. She was referring to the ricin poison found at the Wake Robin retirement center and subsequent arrest of a resident there on Thursday.
Metz also pointed out that as public figures, selectboard members need to have thick skin. Comments made at meetings are often directed at the board as a whole and sometimes at individual members, but board members should never be suing people for any of those remarks, Metz said. Selectboard members must accept criticism and be able to get along with other members in the community, he added.
Parker’s husband Dr. Craig Bartlett spoke in defense of his wife. Bartlett said that in the medical world, an ethics complaint can result in loss of income and loss of employment for a physician.
He then went over the allegations of the lawsuit: that a town official was approached about something of value and never reported it and that the official had not disclosed the fact that he was subpoenaed to testify by the litigant against the town. Bartlett did not mention Ouimet by name.
“There is no evidence of any impropriety here. That’s clear,” said Bartlett, who maintained that the real problem was not disclosing the details.
Continuing to explain Parker’s claims, Bartlett said a town official then asked two questions at a meeting about the issues. He said an ethics complaint, which he termed “fraudulent” was later filed against the town official. If that results in a sanction to somebody with a medical degree it can impact their career, he said.
“Dr. Parker, my wife, was forced to do this because she has a 20-to-30-year medical career ahead of this,” Bartlett said.
Storey, who was overseeing the public comment portion of the meeting, asked remaining speakers to refrain from talking about the details of the complaints.
“Many of us would understand your devotion to your spouse,” Storey said to Bartlett.
“There was no choice in this,” Bartlett replied.
Boyd said he feared a settlement would be difficult after hearing the impassioned comments by Bartlett. “How do we get to where both sides shake hands and walk away amicably?” he asked.