Claremont City Council holds off on vote to oust one of its own

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 01-12-2023 6:28 PM

CLAREMONT — The City Council did not vote Wednesday on whether to remove Councilor Jim Contois for alleged misconduct but instead voted, 7-2, to hold a hearing at a later date, as was its original intent.

The council also defeated a motion by Councilor Jonathan Stone for the recusal of Assistant Mayor Deb Matteau and Contois from the upcoming hearing. Stone said Matteau had a bias because she stated she would vote against removing Contois, who has been accused of using his position to try to have the chief of police lift a no-trespass order issued against him in October by the owner of the Ford dealership on Charlestown Road.

“Assistant Mayor Matteau exceeded her authority by drawing a conclusion on her fact finding,” Stone said. “Therefore she formed an opinion beyond the scope of what she was asked to do.”

Matteau was the chairwoman of a three-member panel that included councilors Andrew O’Hearne and Spencer Batchelder appointed in November to review the allegations against Contois. The panel met three times in November and early December, obtaining statements from witnesses to the incident.

In his statement to the committee, Police Chief Brent Wilmot said he never felt that Contois, who called him to discuss the no-trespass order, used his position in an attempt to influence the chief.

“He felt there was no pressure put on him from Councilor Contois in this situation,” Matteau said at the Wednesday council meeting after reviewing for the council the work of the panel and the evidence it collected.

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She then stated her position.

“I will state, if a motion is put on the table, I will be voting no,” Matteau said about removing Contois. “Our attorney advised us before we started this process that whatever we found, if we felt removal was necessary, it had to be particularly egregious. And if we vote to remove him from office, we are basically saying we are going to overturn an election.”

When Stone moved to have Matteau recused from the Contois hearing, she defended her remarks, stating that councilors often give their opinion on how they will vote on an issue before the actual vote.

“I did make a statement and I’ll stand by that,” Matteau said. “I don’t believe I should be recused because I made a statement based on all the evidence. It may not agree with what you want the outcome to be, but it is how I feel.”

Contois accused the council of “dragging” the issue out.

Contois was on the driveway of the Ford dealership, owned by Christian Gomes, on Oct. 19 and refused to leave, unless police were called, Gomes told police and the council. When police arrived, Contois, who declined to tell the committee where he was standing when Gomes first spoke to him, was on the shoulder of Charlestown Road.

On Oct. 24, Contois called Wilmot, claiming he was on public property when police arrived and was calling to say the order was based on “false information” and that is why he wanted it rescinded. Wilmot told him anyone can obtain a no-trespass order and only Gomes could have it lifted, according to both Wilmot and Contois.

Police called Gomes and told him what Contois said, but Gomes opted to keep the order in place. Gomes than complained to the council at the Oct. 26 meeting, demanding Contois resign due to “abuse of power”; the council then appointed the committee to investigate.

A councilor can be removed under the city charter for “misconduct.”

Separate from the dealership incident, Contois also was accused of dereliction of duty, specifically over a requirement that councilors disclose information on boards and community groups in which they take part.

As council representative to the Historic District Commission, he told the council on Sept. 26 that the commission had not decided whether to recommend demolition of two buildings on Main Street. Commission minutes from Sept. 22 showed it had voted to do so and Contois was aware of the votes. Contois said he did not disclose the result of the cote to the council because he believed the decision was not sufficiently final.

The vote to recuse Contois and Matteau failed, 6-3, and the vote to hold a hearing, with no other business being conducted, passed, with Matteau and Contois opposed.

Also at Wednesday’s council meeting, City Manager Yoshi Manale announced that Fire Chief Bryan Burr will retire in April and Finance Director Lisa Richmond has resigned. Burr joined the fire department in 1988 as a call firefighter and has moved up through the ranks, holding every position in the department. He was appointed chief on Jan. 1, 2018.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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