City councilor survives two votes for removal

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-02-2023 6:58 PM

CLAREMONT — At a meeting Wednesday night, City Councilor James Contois survived two motions to remove him from office for his actions in two separate incidents last year.

In a 6-2 vote, the council rejected a motion by Councilor Jonathan Stone to remove Contois for violating the non-interference clause of the city charter by asking the police chief to lift a no-trespass order filed against him by Christian Gomes, owner of a local car dealership on Charlestown Road.

A second motion called for Contois’ removal because he failed to provide the council with accurate information in September from the Historic District Commission, of which he is a member, about the planned demolition of two Main Street buildings. The dereliction of duty motion failed 4-4.

Contois recused himself from the discussion and votes. Councilors Stone, Andrew O’Hearne, Nick Koloski and William Limoges supported the second motion while Spencer Batchelder, Assistant Mayor Deb Matteau, Mayor Dale Girard and Matt Mooshian were opposed. Only Stone and Limoges supported removal for violating the city charter regarding his actions related to the no-trespass order.

According to meeting minutes, the Historic District Commission approved the demolition on Sept. 22, but on Sept. 28, Contois told the council no decision had been made.

In the Oct. 12 council minutes, Matteau and Stone apologized to the commission for criticizing it for not making a decision when grant funding for the work was at stake. Contois said at that same meeting that he “does not speak for the commission.”

When asked about the issue during an inquiry into the issue later in the fall, Contois said he was waiting for a “certificate of appropriateness” to be issued for the demolition before informing the council.

He reiterated that explanation Wednesday.

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“A building or demolition permit shall not be issued until there is a certificate of appropriateness,” Contois said, referring to handouts he gave to the council this week. “When I came to the council, there was no certificate of appropriateness, so a decision had not been made.”

Before the second vote Wednesday, Koloski and other councilors expressed disillusionment with Contois and skepticism of his explanations.

“I don’t buy the flip flopping stories ... You can’t be a councilor for more than a term then keep using, ‘I’m still learning and I didn’t know’ and then recanting and creating a new story. That is terribly upsetting,” Koloski said. “The sole role of a councilor is to report back to this body the actions at a meeting. I don’t buy this for a minute.”

Koloski also said he would “love to find a reason” (to remove Contois for the interference claim) but he said he did not because the city’s police chief did not believe there was undue influence by Contois to lift the no-trespass order.

“We have to go by the facts,” he said.

Matteau also was irritated by Contois’ two explanations on the Historic District Commission issue, noting that after he told the council no decision had been made on the two buildings, he gave the mayor a more complete explanation after the meeting.

“We all sat here and debated and got angry at the Historic District Commission,” Matteau said. “He is trying to find defenses. He just made a mistake and I wish he owned up to it and apologized and we could have moved on.”

There were several testy exchanges between councilors and Contois during the 45-minute public meeting that followed a non-public session with the council and the city’s attorney, Sean Tanguay, who advised against allowing residents to speak.

When Limoges asked Contois about the commission’s votes to demolish the buildings, Contois agreed that they had been made.

“So that is what we were looking for,” Limoges said. “I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t give us that information.”

“Mostly because I don’t trust a lot of you guys,” Contois replied.

On the no-trespass order, issued against Contois on Oct. 19 after police were called to the Ford dealership, councilors asked Contois a couple of times whether he was on the driveway of the dealership, as Gomes stated in his sworn statement. As he did before the committee, Contois refused to answer, claiming it has nothing to do with the charge of improper influence.

“The question you asked is not relevant. The question before the council is did I exert undue influence,” Contois said. “We can get into a he said, she said all day long. It doesn’t make any difference where I was.”

Gomes told the committee in his statement that he called police because Contois, who said he was photographing a wetlands area on the property for an appeal for wetlands permit issued to Gomes for a second dealership on the property, was on his driveway and refused to leave. When police did arrive, Contois had moved to the shoulder of Charlestown Road.

“I was on public property,” Contois told the council. “So I called the chief and said I don’t want a no-trespass order against me based on false information.”

After Wilmot explained that such an order can be issued against anyone, Contois said the conversation ended.

Claremont Police Chief Brent Wilmot said he did not do anything different with Contois than he would have done with anyone else when fielding the phone call. After Deputy Chief Mark Grasso called Gomes and asked about lifting the no-trespass order, Gomes complained to the council, which then appointed Matteau, O’Hearne and Batchelder to conduct an inquiry.

Matteau said Contois’ actions under the “dereliction of duty” charge did not rise to the level of removal from office and the council would be going down a “slippery slope” if it did so that could come back to haunt it because they could all make similar errors in the future.

Batchelder also was reluctant to remove Contois.

“I don’t like how the councilor conducted himself in this process but it is not my job to dictate what people’s personality should be,” Batchelder said. “That is the voters’ job.”

Gomes said on Thursday he was disappointed in what he witnessed at the meeting.

“Especially how he spoke to the council and they let him get away with those shenanigans,” Gomes said. “For him to say he doesn’t trust his own council, that is an issue with me. And his actions and the way he lies. In my opinion he should not be in public service.”

After the meeting, Contois declined to comment on the proceedings or the outcome.

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

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