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Preston finance board chairman resigns in protest

By Claire Bessette

Publication: theday.com

Published November 27. 2012 12:00PM   Updated November 28. 2012 12:11AM

Preston — Angered that four members of the Board of Finance campaigned against the proposed $8 million loan package that ultimately failed in a referendum Tuesday, Board of Finance Chairman Robert Maurice abruptly resigned Tuesday.

Maurice, a Republican, who has served about 20 years on the finance board, said he was "frustrated" that four members of the board wrote opinion pieces in two local newspapers and distributed fliers days before the vote in opposition to the $8 million loan package that would have continued the cleanup of the former Norwich Hospital property.

One flier suggested several other ways the town could spend $8 million — a new senior center, firetrucks, new school buses and a community center — and at the bottom said "Vote NOvember 27."

"Four members of the Board of Finance are saying we shouldn't be going ahead with the loan," Maurice said Tuesday. "Four members make up a quorum, and stuff was done and influencing things the wrong way. It's wrong. It's just not fair. It's not right."

Board of Finance members Jerry Grabarek, Norman Gauthier, Ken Zachem and Andrew Bilodeau contributed to an opinion article that was published on the editorial page in Sunday's edition of The Day. Grabarek also distributed fliers at the town transfer station on Saturday.

"We have a right to do that," Grabarek said Tuesday. "We have the right to do what we want to do. The four of us got together, and we wrote a letter."

Gauthier, who said he was shocked at Maurice's resignation, said none of the fliers or the opinion articles specifically said "vote no." He said the "Vote NOvember 27" flier was an earlier version he didn't think was distributed.

Gauthier said the four finance board members did not have a meeting — which would have constituted a quorum of the six-member agency — and were expressing their opinions as individuals.

"I believe that the Board of Finance had an obligation to inform the people of the town what this referendum is all about," Gauthier said.

But at least one resident, Preston Redevelopment Agency member William Legler, said he plans to file a complaint with the state Freedom of Information Commission. Legler said he also is considering a complaint to the state Elections Enforcement Commission.

Paula Pearlman, staff attorney for the FOI Commission, said when the commission considers an allegation of an illegal meeting, it depends heavily on the facts of what the group discussed, whether it included official town business or allowed issues such as scheduling a meeting or setting the agenda.

It doesn't matter whether the members met in person, over the phone or via email, she said.

"It's not to say that board members can't communicate by email, but you have to be cautious of what is discussed," she said. "'Are you available to meet on this date,' versus 'what is your position on this issue?'"

In the weeks prior to the referendum, Gauthier had objected to informational meetings by the Preston Redevelopment Agency to explain the loan package to voters, citing state laws that prohibit the use of town funds to promote one side in a referendum question.

The finance board will have the authority to appoint Maurice's replacement, according to state statutes, until the November 2013 regular election. Maurice's six-year term was to expire next fall.

"I don't blame him," Congdon, a supporter of the loan package, said of Maurice's resignation. "It's a big loss to the town, but when you have four members of your board going off on their own with no regard to the board, it's frustrating."

c.bessette@theday.com

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