Conflict, resignations leave lone Warner select board member

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 07-17-2023 6:05 PM

In the downstairs of Warner Town Hall, Christine Frost took her place behind the plastic folding table, with board members Jody Sloane and Harry Seidel on either side, and called the select board meeting to order.

With a light agenda for last Tuesday’s meeting – a new contract, reviews of tax maps and a parcel conversion – Frost, the board chair, joked that if business was kept quick, they’d trade bureaucracy in a basement for beautiful weather that night.

Debate ensued over an item that wasn’t on the agenda – a town contract with a local food pantry, Warner Connects. The two-hour meeting proved to be Frost’s last at the helm.

The following day, she handed in her resignation. Sloane followed thereafter.

With the next select board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, July 18, Seidel will have no choice but to open and close the meeting immediately. With one person at the helm, town government in Warner is halted due to a lack of a quorum.

To Sloan and Frost, the collapse of the select board is emblematic of larger dysfunction and growing division in town. To Seidel and Town Administrator Diane Ricciardelli the root of the issue came from a legitimate contract concern that didn’t need to end with anyone quitting.

Town-owned lease

Down the road from town hall on West Main Street in Warner, the Old Graded School building houses a thrift store on the first floor, a food pantry around the back, a homeschooling agency on the third floor and a childcare center, now home to the Boys and Girls Club.

The town-owned building is intended to serve as a space for local organizations. Yet, the space is a dilapidated structure in need of repair.

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The third floor has no bathroom and a window is broken in the conference room. The building lacks an elevator, with no access to the top floor for handicapped individuals.

With repairs come costs. And for the nonprofits that operate in these spaces, an increase in rent is beyond their budgets.

These fears have been vetted at select board meetings this spring. GearUp, the homeschool organization, said rent had increased by 4,000% at the board’s June meeting.

The town serves as the landlord to the organizations that occupy this building. Evictions between a property owner and tenant can be messy and the Warner select board is no exception.

In March, Warner Connects, was notified by the charitable trust unit from the state attorney general’s office, which oversees organizations, that its food pantry’s operations were under investigation.

These matters have since been cleared, with official correspondence on July 13 cementing the organization’s good standing.

But as the organization restructures, with volunteers resigning and the Board of Directors now expanding, Seidel also has a new suggestion – perhaps the Old Graded School isn’t the right space for the pantry.

“Maybe it’s just not the right building,” said Seidel. “That’s been my opinion for a long time.”

This came to a head at the select board’s July 11 meeting.

A week prior, Frost had met with Warner Connects to sign a new lease to occupy the space through the end of the year. Rent would be $400 a month, determined based on the square footage the organization occupies in the building. They’d renegotiate in December with a new lease for 2024.

At the time, Ricciardelli was out sick. Frost signed the contract with Warner Connects and left the copy on the town administrator’s desk.

When Ricciardelli returned, one line in the contract had been changed. Instead of a stipulation that hallways could not be used for storage or materials at any time, the new lease signed by Frost stated that these items could not be left out only overnight.

This was a fire code violation, according to Ricciardelli, and an essential part of the lease.

When the select board gathered the following Tuesday for their regular meeting, Seidel immediately wanted to know why the wording was changed and bluntly made clear he would not be signing a contract with the tenant.

“I felt that it was improper that the contract had been changed. And I had lost confidence in Warner Connects earlier. So I was troubled by that,” he said.

What he didn’t intend was for both his counterparts to resign.

Now, there’s no contract. And simply put, with one official member, there’s no select board either.

“I’m proud that I brought up the subject,” he said. “But I’m baffled by the outcome.”

Rebuilding town leadership

For both Frost and Sloane, the technical debate over contracts was the final breaking point in more significant concerns about town management.

“It was the last straw,” said Frost. “I personally feel that there is systemic dysfunction in the administration. It became really clear to me, during and after that meeting, that I did not have the capacity to be effective for the town.”

When Sloane and Seidel joined the select board in April, no official orientation was in place. Frost put together a blue binder of rules and guidance for the new appointees. The binder had a message, said Seidel – “Know the territory.”

Seidel read it cover to cover. He had prior experience in town government on planning and zoning boards. With the blue binder’s guidance, coupled with hour-long, weekly meetings with Ricciardelli, it was a strong introduction to a familiar setting, he said.

But for Sloane, the select board was new territory. She’d moved to Warner during the pandemic three years prior. She wanted to live in a small town where she could be involved locally.

When a one-year select board position opened, the opportunity landed in her lap. Albeit a little uncomfortable, she stepped forward.

“This was very scary to me,” she said. “But I said, ‘I care that there’s a spot that no one will take, and I’ll go in and see what I can do.’”

And as comfort, Sloane knew she’d be working alongside Frost, who was one year into a three-year term on the board.

“I thought she was really someone who represented the people, impartially and fair,” Sloane said. “I thought with her leadership I could do this, and that’s why I signed up.”

So when Frost handed in her resignation last week, Sloane quickly followed. It was a move that surprised Frost and baffled Seidel. But without her leadership, Sloane knew she couldn’t do her job effectively, she said.

“It felt really awful to me, that I wasn’t going to be able to do what I wanted to do. And that is to represent these people here because I love them and it matters,” she said.

Now, Seidel has petitioned Merrimack Superior Court to appoint Faith Minton, who has a longstanding history of volunteer work in Warner, to fill Frost’s vacant seat.

There will be a public hearing Thursday at the courthouse for a judge to rule on Minton’s confirmation.

To Seidel and Ricciardelli, it’s an emergency matter, with no choice but to turn to the court to help rebuild the board. The fire department payroll is due July 18, and the bi-weekly payroll is scheduled for July 27, according to the petition.

Both Sloane and Frost offered to remain on the board and help appoint a replacement before officially resigning, they said. Instead, the town petitioned the court, which incurs legal fees.

“I feel like this was a rush job and I don’t understand why,” said Sloane. “You have this opportunity to do that and avoid Superior Court and you don’t take it. My question is why?”

Minton will serve until March, when a new select board member will be elected at Town Meeting.

But regardless of the process, Frost has one hope for what comes next on the board – that people support Minton.

“Someone that has the courage to step up and try to get things done, God bless her,” she said. “I would implore the community to support Faith.”

The path forward

The debate over the food pantry, isn’t about the fine details of bread and canned goods. Instead, it’s a comment on class, comfort and the cost of living in town. These tenants are the stark divide among Warner residents, according to Sloane.

On one side of Warner, there’s an active and engaged community. On the other, there’s residents struggling with the cost of living and wondering what’s next.

“You’re looking at a town that’s going to become gentrified and the taxes are going up and no one’s doing anything to help them,” she said. “They want to stay in their homes. That’s what they’re worried about.”

These are people who often aren’t heard in town politics.

Now, she hopes that they’ll step up to attend meetings, voicing their opinion that may have been previously ignored – new voices in a common sea of refrain.

“There are people who have their own ideas about how things should be done,” she said. “They’re not being impartial. They’re not being fair. There is overreach.”

For Seidel, the path forward is putting his head down and continuing to get things done on the select board, he said.

Once a second person is confirmed to the select board, the duo can choose a third member.

First responders have worked overtime and responses to storms have kept highway crews busy. These are things that need to be budgeted for – the day-to-day of town operations, which is where Seidel is choosing to focus his time and attention.

“It may seem small, but these are things that make a town resilient,” he said.

Vindictive comments from residents will pass, he said. And at the first meeting alongside the new select person, he’ll explain what happened.

“From then on, it will be taking care of town business,” he said. Warner is a great town. It’s got a powerful engine and great people. And we’ll get over this and we’ll be  stronger.”

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