Ousted Claremont city councilor is reinstated after legal wrangling

By PATRICK O’GRADY

Valley News Correspondent

Published: 04-27-2023 4:31 PM

CLAREMONT — The City Council has reinstated a member who was expelled earlier this year after being accused of misleading fellow councilors.

The attorney for James Contois, who was removed from office in February and reinstated on Wednesday, said in a March court filing that the council failed to follow state law or the city charter when it voted to oust his client on Feb. 8.

“The Claremont City Council acted in an unlawful and impulsive manner when it removed Councilor Contois from his elected position without any regard for the law,” attorney Roy Tilsley, of Manchester, wrote in a court filing last month.

The decision by the City Council to reinstate Contois — which came in a 5-3 vote Wednesday — was based on a recommendation from the attorney who represented the city, Mayor Dale Girard said.

“Based upon conversations with legal (counsel), the recommendation was that we should work together with Mr. Contois to reappoint him to his seat,” Girard said Thursday. “We agreed to allow him to get his seat back on the council and on Conservation (commission) and we also agreed to pay his attorney fees up to $3,000.”

Girard, Assistant Mayor Deb Matteau and councilors Spencer Batchelder, William Limoges and Matt Mooshian voted to reinstate Contois, who attended the meeting and was sworn in by City Clerk Gwen Melcher immediately after the vote. Councilors Andrew O’Hearne, Jonathan Stone and Nick Koloski voted against the reinstatement motion by Matteau.

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It was Matteau and Limoges who cast the deciding votes on Feb. 8 when Contois was removed for what was termed “dereliction of duty” after he failed to inform them in September of a decision by the Historic District Commission regarding the planned demolition of two homes on Main Street. The commission had voted to proceed with demolition but Contois led the council to believe no decision had been made.

On Wednesday, the council did not debate Matteau’s motion or explain the reasons for it, and the process lasted just a few minutes.

Scott Pope, who was appointed last month to replace Contois, submitted a resignation letter prior to the meeting and did not attend. His resignation was accepted in a 6-3 vote.

“He stepped down to allow the council to follow through on the legal advice,” Girard said. “He understood it was in the best interests of the city.”

The initial vote this winter to remove Contois ended in a deadlock, 4-4. But a week later, Matteau changed her vote because, she said, she was upset by a statement Contois made about not trusting his fellow councilors as rationale for not informing them of the commission’s actions.

Contois’ attorney, Tilsley, seized upon Matteau’s statement in a 14-page appeal of the removal vote filed in Sullivan County Superior Court on March 17.

Tilsley noted that Contois’ failure to share information with the council did not warrant removal on Feb. 1 as the council deadlocked, 4-4.

“Councilor Contois was not removed for his purported failure to share information with the Claremont City Council,” Tilsley wrote. “Rather, councilor Contois was removed because Assistant Mayor Matteau did not like Councilor Contois’ response to a question that was posed during the special meeting held one week earlier.”

At that Feb. 1 meeting, Limoges asked Contois directly why he told the council the Historic District Commission had not reached a decision on the demolitions when in fact it had and he was aware of the votes.

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

It was the third different explanation Contois had given since October as to why he did not provide accurate information on the demolitions.

At the Feb. 8 meeting, Matteau explained her decision to change her vote on removal: “The more I thought about it, the more I don’t feel this was an honest mistake,” Matteau said at the time. “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.”

In the court filing, Tilsley argued this didn’t meet the legal standard for overturning the will of voters.

“Assistant Mayor Matteau’s disapproval of Councilor Contois’ answer to a question during a special meeting is not sufficient cause to warrant removal,” Tilsley wrote.

Tilsley also said the council failed in its duty to abide by the charter by providing Contois with notice that it intended to discuss his “removal and/or revote on his removal at the Council meeting held on Feb. 8,” and therefore Contois was not able to prepare for a removal hearing nor was he allowed to discuss the basis for a removal vote on Feb. 8.

“The Claremont City Council’s failure to hold a proper removal hearing violates New Hampshire law and the Claremont City Charter,” Tilsley wrote.

Contois, through his attorney, first notified the council in a letter on Feb. 21, that he was unlawfully removed and the council failed to “remove for sufficient cause, provide due notice, and/or hold a proper removal hearing.”

The city’s attorney responded a day later stating that the council “stands by its vote of Feb. 8, 2023” and Tilsley then appealed.

Tilsley also cited the removal clause in the city charter which states that a councilor can be removed for “prolonged absences, inattention to duties, crime and or misconduct in office.”

“Contois’ purported failure to share information with the Claremont City Council does not rise to the level of a ‘crime and/or ‘misconduct’ that would warrant sufficient cause under statute,” Tilsley wrote.

Girard said because the council met in a “non-meeting with its attorney” he was prohibited from stating whether all councilors agreed to follow the attorney’s advice to reinstate Contois.

Tilsley said he was pleased with the outcome for his client.

“From my perspective, we are obviously happy it is resolved and councilor Contois is back in his seat where he belongs,” Tilsley said, declining to discuss the fees the city will have to pay.

Messages left for Contois and the city’s attorney, Stephen Bennett, were not returned.

The saga with Contois began last fall when he accused of pressuring the chief of police to remove a no-trespass order requested by the owner of a car dealership. Contois acknowledged he called Chief Brent Wilmot but only to explain he was not on the dealership’s property so the order was unwarranted.

The owner of the dealerships alleged Contois was on the property taking photos for an appeal of a wetlands permit the dealership received from the state.

Chief Wilmot told the council he never felt pressured by Contois to lift the no-trespass order. The council voted, 6-2, on Feb. 1 against removing Contois for allegedly violating the charter’s non-interference clause.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmailcom

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