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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Amherst selectmen, board chairman struggle with public image over stipend

AMHERST – That one potential “no” vote was absent from the March 11 meeting had nothing to do with Selectman George Infanti’s decision to reintroduce a previously unsuccessful motion to reimburse board Chairman Bruce Bowler $2,000 for extra work, Infanti said Thursday.

The fact that the motion, after failing 2-2-1 on Feb. 11, passed the second time, 2-1-1, with Selectman Brad Galinson absent triggered outrage in many corners of town, much of which was vented at the polls the next day. ...

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AMHERST – That one potential “no” vote was absent from the March 11 meeting had nothing to do with Selectman George Infanti’s decision to reintroduce a previously unsuccessful motion to reimburse board Chairman Bruce Bowler $2,000 for extra work, Infanti said Thursday.

The fact that the motion, after failing 2-2-1 on Feb. 11, passed the second time, 2-1-1, with Selectman Brad Galinson absent triggered outrage in many corners of town, much of which was vented at the polls the next day.

Bowler ultimately declined the stipend, a decision about which Infanti and current board Vice Chairman Dwight Brew said they learned Wednesday while searching online town forums.

“To the residents of Amherst: I want to let you all know that I will not be accepting the compensation that was voted to give me on Monday night,” Bowler wrote.

Bowler, who spent hours working at Town Hall after selectmen placed Town Administrator Jim O’Mara on paid administrative leave in December, hadn’t responded as of Saturday to a Telegraph email containing several questions.

It isn’t known how many people were at the March 11 selectmen’s meeting, or how many watched it on TV or computer, but the news that Infanti’s second motion had passed while Galinson was absent was common knowledge by Tuesday morning.

“It took me two hours to vote, and there wasn’t even a line,” retired Fire Chief Rick Crocker, now a member of the government watchdog Amherst Citizens Association, said Tuesday afternoon. “People are livid. They were coming up to me one after the other over this. It’s a classic example of what’s wrong with Town Hall right now.”

But Infanti defended the motions, saying Bowler “does more work than anyone I’ve ever seen” among elected officials with whom Infanti has served in his more than 20 years as selectman in three towns.

Infanti said Thursday that he reintroduced the motion after learning Bowler put in many more hours than he originally realized. According to the minutes of the Feb. 11 meeting, Infanti said Bowler spent more than “100 hours to keep the ship afloat,” adding, “It would have cost the town a great deal more to hire a temporary (town) administrator.”

But many who criticized the issue said such extra work “comes with the territory” of being an elected official, and if officials, especially selectmen, begin accepting compensation, they’re already halfway down a slippery slope.

“I can tell you, as an ex-selectman, that I and all of my colleagues did a lot of extra work from time to time on one subject or another,” resident Bill Overholt wrote in a www.amhersttoday.com forum. “We knew when we ran for the job that occasionally it would be more demanding than we bargained for. I doubt if any of us would have considered … additional compensation.”

Infanti, though, said many of those lashing out at the motions, and the board in general, aren’t seeing the entire picture.

“I did what I felt was right based on the work Bruce did,” he said, adding that his decision to reintroduce the motion on March 11 had “nothing to do at all whether Brad was there or not.”

Infanti bristles at suggestions he was being sneaky by bringing up the motion when a previous detractor was absent.

“I’ve never done anything underhanded like that,” he said. “I think people know me well enough to know that I wouldn’t do that. People can say what they want online, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Meanwhile, Brew, who topped the field in his re-election bid Tuesday, said he wasn’t comfortable with the proposal from the moment it was brought up.

“My belief is that it just comes with being an effective member of the board,” Brew said of extra work officials undertake from time to time. The motive for putting in extra time, he said, should be “because you want to help out the community, not to be reimbursed.”

Brew said he also had a problem with the fact the reimbursement issue wasn’t on the agenda of either meeting, especially because the public didn’t have a chance to come and comment if they wished.

“In both cases, I had absolutely no idea it was going to come up, so I was very uncomfortable with it,” he said. “And the second time, I was also uncomfortable because one of the previous dissenting members wasn’t there.”

Marilyn Peterman, a former selectman who ran again but finished last on Tuesday in the four-way race, has been a vocal critic of the board, charging members with “setting in motion this lack of transparency beginning with the process of hiring the town administrator” in a February statement.

On Tuesday, while working the polls, Peterman said she called on Bowler to decline the stipend.

“I told him, ‘Bruce, you can’t take that money,’ ” she said at the polls.

“Never has any selectman been compensated for … the hours of work they volunteered to do,” she wrote later in an online forum.

On Thursday, Peterman praised Bowler’s decision.

“He did the right thing,” she said, declining to speculate about whether Bowler’s decision could start to reverse the trend of citizen mistrust.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).