By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Tempers flared last night as selectmen chose new leaders at their first meeting since the election March 12.
A meeting that began with a tense discussion of who should lead the board later led to accusations that two selectmen illegally leaked information about a nonpublic meeting. But by the time it was over, selectmen were joking with each other.
It all started when Selectman Stephen Campbell kicked off the board’s election of officers by nominating Everett McBride Jr. as chairman and Patrick Hargreaves — the previous chairman — as the new vice chairman. Campbell also nominated himself as secretary.
James Keller, the previous vice chairman, became angry.
Keller abstained when the nominations came up for a vote. He said he was frustrated the entire board did not discuss the positions before taking a vote. Selectman Michael Lyons also abstained, but did not give a reason.
Hargreaves, Campbell and McBride voted in favor of the nominations without further discussion.
“What’s disappointing is that there is generally a conversation,” Keller said. “We didn’t collaborate ... I’m just disappointed.”
Hargreaves, Campbell and McBride often vote differently on issues from Keller and Lyons, who end up on the losing side.
Keller accused the three of consulting with each other and not contacting him or Lyons.
Hargreaves then congratulated McBride and handed him the chairman’s gavel.
“I think we will work together as a board,” McBride said. “I think that the board did work together as a board last year.”
McBride spoke to selectmen about potential committee assignments and said they will discuss the board’s bylaws and code of ethics at a future meeting.
“I think we will work together as a great team,” he said.
But Keller still appeared to be upset. Although Lyons did not say during the meeting why he abstained from voting for new leaders, he did comment after when questioned by a reporter.
“Because I wasn’t asked,” he said.
While selectmen discussed several other subjects in a cordial manner, the tenor of the meeting quickly changed when the ninth item on the board’s agenda happened to be accusations that Keller and Lyons discussed details of a nonpublic meeting with an Eagle-Tribune reporter.
Campbell, who raised the issue, quoted portions of an article published Feb. 13 that described a nonpublic session at which selectmen discussed a $42,000 severance payment to former chief building official Sam Zannini.
Zannini retired in December after his job was eliminated. He had worked for the town for 36 years.
After discussing the severance agreement in closed session Feb. 11, the issue surfaced again during the public portion of the board’s meeting that night.
Human resources director Molly McKean referenced the agreement when describing a confrontation she had with Campbell, who was upset about the payment to Zannini.
Zannini’s name was not mentioned in public, but was included in McKean’s memo about the confrontation nearly two weeks earlier.
She accused Campbell of acting out of line, prompting the rest of the board to vote to have him investigated. They later decided to drop the probe.
When Keller and Lyons were asked about the severance agreement with Zannini the next day, they said they could not comment because it was a nonpublic matter. Neither mentioned Zannini by name, but Lyons refuted Campbell’s claim that selectmen had no previous knowledge of the agreement.
“I totally 100 percent disagree with that,” Lyons said.
Lyons said he and Keller asked that the severance be discussed in public, but the other selectmen refused. Hargreaves later said that Keller and Lyons should not have said anything at all about the case, prompting Campbell to raise the issue last night.
“It appears from this article that two selectmen may have talked about a nonpublic meeting,” Campbell said. “You can’t even tell anyone or a reporter what the subject matter is.”
Selectmen discussed addressing such an issue when they review their bylaws.
But Lyons became angry, saying he was tired of discussing certain matters in nonpublic session and then being asked to vote on something different than was discussed earlier.
“What’s going to trump bylaws is state law,” he said, referring to the Right-to-Know Law. “I am frustrated with the lack of transparency in this process. ... We need to clean up our act.”
Keller defended his reputation, insisting he never acted out of line.
“I said, ‘No comment. It’s against the law.”’
After the board moved on to other issues, selectmen were joking with each other — including whether someone had to be dead to have a town building named after them.