In reversal, Claremont City Council votes to oust one of its own

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-09-2023 3:28 PM

CLAREMONT — With Assistant Mayor Deb Matteau changing her position, the City Council voted 5-3 Wednesday to remove James Contois from his seat for failure to accurately inform other councilors about a decision by the Historic District Commission.

The decision overrides a 4-4 vote on an identical motion last week.

Matteau said she changed her vote on the charge of dereliction of duty against Contois because of a statement he made last week. The statement came after Councilor William Limoges asked Contois why he told the council in September that the Historic District Commission had not reached a decision on the demolition of two Main Street buildings when in fact it had and he was aware of the votes.

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

On Wednesday, Matteau said over the last several days, she has had time to think about that comment.

“The more I thought about it, the more I don’t feel this was an honest mistake,” Matteau said about Contois not accurately informing the council of the commission’s votes. “I think this was deliberate, and the reason given was he didn’t trust us and that is the reason he didn’t give us accurate information. That is why I am changing my stance.”

The council first voted 7-2 to reconsider last week’s vote. No other councilor commented Wednesday and Contois recused himself before Wednesday’s vote. Matteau was joined by councilors Andrew O’Hearne, Jonathan Stone, Nick Koloski and William Limoges. Girard, Matt Mooshian and Spencer Batchelder voted no.

After the vote, Contois returned to his seat. Later in the meeting, during committee reports, Contois attempted to report on the Conservation Commission, of which he is a member, but was cut off by Girard, who told him he was no longer a sitting councilor.

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“What do you mean I am not a sitting councilor?” Contois asked.

“You were just voted off the council, 5-3,” Girard said.

“You guys can’t vote me off the council,” Contois said. “You may think you are able to vote me off, but you can’t. The rules are quite clear. ... You have no authority to remove me.”

Girard told Contois there would not be further discussion on the matter and continued the meeting.

Contois eventually left his seat.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Contois declined to comment.

Under a section of the city charter, the council can “remove one of its members for cause, including but not limited to prolonged absence from or other inattention to duties, crime or misconduct in office, or as specified in the charter.”

There is relatively recent precedent for the removal of a sitting councilor in Claremont. In 2008, Councilor Richard Dietz was removed by the council for violating the non-interference clause of the charter by giving an order to a department head, which only the city manager can do.

Before last week’s meeting, the council met with its attorney, Sean Tanguay, in a non-public session. A message left for Tanguay Thursday seeking clarification on the authority for Contois’ removal was not returned.

All councilors are appointed as representatives to different city boards and commissions, and one of their responsibilities is to report to the full council actions by the boards and commissions they sit on.

According to council minutes, Contois initially said he declined to speak for the commission and that is why he did not tell the council about the commission’s votes.

Then later, before a three-member committee of councilors conducting an inquiry into his conduct, Contois gave a different justification for not informing the council. He said it was because a “certificate of appropriateness” had not been issued for the work the historic commission approved, a point he repeated last week.

On Thursday, Matteau reiterated that is was the broader context of Contois’ inaccurate report that upset the council, Matteau said Thursday. The council was discussing the demolition of the buildings and worried that the city could lose out on a grant to pay for the work if the commission, which it criticized, didn’t act in a timely manner. In fact, the commission’s vote to demolish had already happened, but Contois hadn’t passed the information on to his colleagues.

“We were worried the city would miss the grant deadline and (demolition) could end up on the back of the taxpayers,” Matteau said. “That was the crux of the issue.”

Last week, Matteau, in voting against removal, was willing to give Contois the benefit of the doubt.

“He just made a mistake, and I wish he owned up to it and apologized and we could have moved on,” she said at the time.

Contois can appeal his removal in Superior Court, Matteau said.

On Thursday, Girard explained his vote against removal, which hinged on his interpretation of the city charter.

“It is tough to see anything in the charter that allows this,” Girard said. “I don’t feel the punishment is reflective of the issue being discussed.”

In a second vote last week, the council defeated a motion, 6-2, to remove Contois for an attempt to have the Police Chief Brent Wilmot lift a no-trespass order.

Christian Gomes, the owner of a Ford dealership, had the order issued in October when he discovered Contois on his property taking photos in connection with an appeal of a wetlands permit issued by the state to the dealership. Wilmot told the council he never felt pressured by Contois to have the order rescinded.

Gomes, who was not at Wednesday’s meeting, said he was informed of the decision by a phone call while he was returning from Boston.

“I am absolutely ecstatic,” Gomes said on Thursday.

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

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