After much rancor, 2 Monterey officials agree not to communicate outside meetings, emails

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MONTEREY — A member of the Select Board will not talk to the Town Administrative Assistant outside of board meetings and emails following a contentious meeting Thursday night called to hash out long-simmering tensions between the two officials.

The rancor between newest Select Board member Donald Coburn and Town Administrative Assistant Melissa Noe has impeded regular town business, said Select Board members Chairwoman Carol Edelman and Kenneth Basler, as well as Town Counsel Jeremia Pollard, who attended the meeting at their request.

The situation had become so toxic the town was having a difficult time keeping minutes of Select Board meetings, Pollard said, noting that there are three versions of the Oct. 24 Select Board meeting minutes because the board and Noe couldn't agree on the finer points of what transpired.

"The issue here is how do we treat employees and interact with employees, how do we responsibly treat employees," Basler said.

"I'm trying to move on with issues in town," he told Coburn. "There are two of us dealing with issues, and you're dealing with minutes and conspiracy theories against you and there aren't any."

The meeting was called in response to a complaint against Noe, a 16-year town employee, by Coburn, who was elected to the board in May, and a complaint Noe filed with the Monterey Police Department against Coburn. This was the third complaint Noe has made against Coburn to the Select Board, Basler said. Around 20 people attended the meeting, which took place in the Town Offices.

Noe alleged verbal and physical harassment — the throwing of an audio recorder in her direction — during an incident at the Town Offices on Monday. Coburn accused Noe of being dishonest and unqualified for her job.

Toward the end of the hourlong meeting, Coburn volunteered to not talk to Noe outside of town meetings and emails. He said he would not come into Noe's office unless he needed to pick up warrants or other Select Board materials. Following that he would promptly leave. Pollard added that there should be room for small, in-person requests from Coburn to Noe — for example, an extra copy of a document or a specific file.

"Because you're not trustworthy," Coburn told Noe, "I will not go into the office other than to pick up warrants. I can do my job by emailing you and sending you any questions I have for the meeting."

Noe said the solution isn't perfect but agreed to it.

"I'm not entirely comfortable with it. I don't know when I'm going to get the next email that's nasty," she said. "This doesn't solve the problem, but it solves him not coming in and throwing things at me."

After Noe approved the arrangement, Basler and Edelman quickly closed the meeting while Coburn was still talking. With overlapping conversations and murmurs from the audience, it was not clear what Coburn was saying.

"The number of lies told tonight is extreme," he said about the meeting.

What happened

Noe alleged that on Monday Coburn yelled, threw an audio recorder at her and said she should be fired.

Coburn alleged that the incident was precipitated by his request four days prior to listen to Noe's audio recording of a recent Select Board meeting. Coburn disputed a portion of the written minutes. He said he did not sign or agree to a change of work notice on the town library construction project, but the minutes implied he had.

Noe erased the recording after writing the minutes and did not have it available for Coburn. He alleged that Noe erased the audio recording of the meeting to keep comments made there off the record. Noe said she usually erases meeting audio recordings after she finishes summarizing them in the official minutes.

Monterey does not have a policy on how long audio recordings of meetings should be kept for public record.

"Some stuff at the meeting, people asked for it to be off the record," Noe said. "That's not why I erased them."

Coburn said while he was in the Town Offices on Monday, he expressed frustration toward Noe but did not yell or throw a recorder at the Town Administrative Assistant.

Coburn had asked to see the audio recorder Noe uses for meetings. She then gave Coburn the recorder. She said he threw it at her face, while Corburn claimed he tossed it onto her desk.

Statements by two town employees who were in the offices — though, not in the same room when the recorder was lobbed — affirmed that Coburn had yelled at Noe and threatened her employment.

After Coburn left the offices, Noe made a complaint to the Monterey Police.

"We're in fear, no one knows what will set him off yelling, swearing or talking about firing and other forms of harassment," Noe said.

People in the audience Thursday night included former Select Board members Scott Jenssen and Steven Weisz, both of whom spoke favorably about Noe and her work for Monterey. Jenssen said Coburn, a retired judge, is acting like he's still in court — interrogating town employees and being a stickler. He told Coburn to resign.

"Take your [judge's] robes off, Don, or you're going to wrap yourself up in them," Jenssen said.

Coburn said he will fulfill his duty as an elected member of the Select Board and serve his full term, which expires in 2021, but he does not intend to run for re-election.

"Would I like to resign? I'd like to do you the favor, I really would, but I'm not because I was elected to do a job," Coburn said.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.

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