WILLIAMSTOWN — The Select Board disappointed a former member and appointed a new one this week.
On a night when they appointed Jessica DuBois-Worn to fill the vacancy created by the recent resignation of veteran Selectman Ed McGlynn, board members told Rodney Graham he’ll have to take the town to court to recover $9,600 in damages he claims he is owed.
The dispute dates back to an April rainstorm that washed silty soil from a potato farm on South Hill Road on to a neighboring field Graham, a local lawmaker who previously served on the board, leases from the farm’s owner to grow organic feed.
During a sometimes-testy exchange Monday night Graham renewed his claim ditches installed by the town funneled water across the potato farm, carrying soil containing fertilizers and herbicides on to the field he has leased for 14 years.
Graham, who discussed the issue with the board in May, renewed his claim the town is responsible for his inability to use the field to as a source of organic feed during the three years it will take to have it re-certified.
“I can’t use that property to feed my animals for three years,” Graham said of a field that typically produced 80 tons of feed a year.
At $40 a ton – a conservative estimate – Graham said that amounts to $9,600 over three years.
Undaunted by the fact the town’s insurer recently denied his claim, Graham argued the town was still liable and dismissed concerns over making a potentially precedent-setting payment.
“You wouldn’t be setting a precedent because it has already been set,” he said citing a 1985 court case that ended two years later with the town paying a local couple $7,500 and providing 1,500 yards of fill after construction a drainage ditch across their property without permission or an easement.
During what turned into an extended back and forth Chairman Matthew Rouleau noted that case was distinguishably different because it involved work that was inadvertently done on private property, not within the town right of way. Rouleau said other examples cited by Graham involved the town making complaint-based repairs just like it did in his case in the aftermath of the April rainstorm.
Rouleau said he sympathized with Graham, but could not comfortably authorize using taxpayer’s money to cover a claim the town’s insurer just denied.
“I can write my (personal) checks out of compassion and thoughtfulness, but I can’t do that with the town’s checkbook,” he said. “I need to be told the town is liable before I can support that.”
Selectman Francis Covey agreed, suggesting the only thing that would change his mind is a judge’s order.
“I think it’s at that point,” he said, even as Graham was accusing the town of skipping a step in a statutory process and alternately arguing the town’s decision to turn a roadside ditch to funnel water on to private property was both intentional and negligent.
According to Graham, changing the ditch required a hearing process, notice to landowners and board approval.
“Was that process done?” he asked.
“Not to my knowledge,” replied Rouleau, who questioned whether it needed to be in order to perform ditch work in the town-owned right of way.
“The law is clear,” he said. “You cannot turn water on to someone’s property without their permission.”
Rouleau was skeptical.
“I don’t believe the law is as clear as you’re making it sound,” he said.
Graham doggedly argued it was, rejecting the notion he was trying to badger the board into a settlement.
“I could give a (expletive deleted) about the money,” he said, later scoffing at the suggestion of a GoFundMe eampaign. “I will survive.”
With several other organic operations in Williamstown, Graham said the board and the road crew needed to take their responsibilities seriously.
“The town does not have the right to do what they did,” he insisted.
Covey said Graham should tell it to a judge, because the board couldn’t give him the answer he wanted.
“You’re trying to try the case in a Select Board meeting,” Covey said. “We’re not lawyers … you’re not a lawyer.”
Graham, who later said he hadn’t decided whether to sue the town, pressed the board to make a decision. Members obliged, voting to formally accept the findings of the town’s insurer in the letter denying his claim.
The exchange with Graham dominated a meeting during which members received an update – and fielded some questions – about a committee that is looking into a local ATV ordinance, approved a hazard mitigation plan, reviewed a draft junkyard ordinance and filled the vacancy created when McGlynn resigned for health reasons.
Four residents applied to serve through Town Meeting Day in March and, after meeting in executive session, the board agreed to appoint DuBois-Worn.
A Williamstown native, DuBois-Worn is the former assistant treasurer in Barre who now works in the city’s accounting department. She ran against Covey in 2018 and said Monday she remains interested in serving on the board.
Three others indicated they were willing to serve and all attended the public portion of Monday’s meeting. That group included Don Angolano, Michael Flies and Rama Schneider.