Selectboard member Irene Wrenner listens to residents' criticism of her actions at the Essex polls on primary day during Monday's board meeting. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Selectboard member Irene Wrenner listens to residents’ criticism of her actions at the Essex polls on primary day during Monday’s board meeting. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

By COLIN FLANDERS

Concerns over a selectboard member’s actions at the polls on primary day led to a fiery meeting at the town offices Monday, with some residents alleging a violation of the town’s communication policy.

As detailed in last week’s Reporter, Irene Wrenner stood outside Essex Middle School during the August 9 primary, handing out pink fliers critical of the proposal to create a union municipal district between the village and town recreation departments.

Wrenner has publicly criticized the plan on multiple occasions, but the town’s communication policy states selectboard members must clearly indicate they’re not representing the board when sharing dissenting opinions.

Selectboard chairman Max Levy said there are allegations Wrenner failed to do so.   

He will confer with municipal manager Pat Scheidel and, if necessary, legal counsel to determine if any violation occurred.    

Wrenner argued her flier didn’t mention her position on the selectboard and provided her personal email.

The flier wasn’t the only point of contention, however.

“There’s a child in the room, so I’m working really hard to speak around the issue,” village resident Annie Cooper said. “I’m not comfortable with what was handed out, and if I’m not even comfortable saying that right here, I don’t know how that was an OK thing.”

Cooper was referencing condoms, also distributed by Wrenner, with stickers reading, “Stop STDs (Special Tax Districts): Vote NO Dec. 13!”

Many residents weren’t amused.

“That doesn’t feel respectful to me,” Cooper said. “I’m very concerned about what that speaks to about your board and how I should trust you as a board.”

Other residents echoed Cooper’s concerns, including Lori Houghton, village trustee and member of the recreation study committee, who asserted she was speaking merely as citizen.

Houghton said the information on Wrenner’s flier was inaccurate and requested the selectboard censure her for violating the town’s communication policy.

“I’m quite frankly appalled by the behavior of one of my public officials who has berated committee members in public, distributed false information and compared the work of a volunteer committee to a venereal disease,” Houghton said.

Some people also took exception to Wrenner’s conduct at the meeting itself.

After Cooper clarified she hadn’t seen the fliers, Wrenner left her seat as town resident Ramona Sheppard spoke and dropped one on Cooper’s lap.

“There is no need for a selectboard member to get out of their seat to address someone who’s voicing their public opinion,” village resident Laurie Singer said. “It’s wrong. It’s disrespectful.”

Later in the meeting, Wrenner defended her actions, saying she simply offered the flier, leaving it only after Cooper didn’t make eye contact or accept the document.

Paul Austin, a town resident, felt the accusations against Wrenner were unfair.

“Does anyone else want to lay on before I speak?” he asked before asserting Wrenner is the only selectboard member to voice concern for taxpayers regarding the plan.

Austin said Wrenner provided more information at the polls than what he’s received from the recreation study committee.

“It’s sophomoric to use such words as unethical,” he said, adding he doesn’t want his representative to be “a llama that lines up with everyone else and says nothing.

“I want them to come to me and say what’s happening,” he said. “She is doing her job, as far as I’m concerned, and I would submit the majority of taxpayers in the town [agree].”

A handful in the crowd loudly disagreed, prompting Levy to ask residents to wait their turn to speak. This occurred numerous times throughout the nearly four-hour meeting.

Two fellow selectmen took aim at Wrenner’s actions. Michael Plageman said he was “utterly amazed and disheartened” by Wrenner’s “tasteless” poll antics.

“It’s beneath the bar of civil discourse, it’s beneath her intelligence and it’s beneath her position as a selectboard member,” he said.

Levy, who previously discredited the fliers at the Aug. 10 recreation study committee meeting, doubled down after learning about the condoms passed out on school grounds.

“Had I known that, I would have included my disappointment at that comparison that was made by her between the work of the committee and sexually transmitted disease,” he said.

Wrenner shot back, asserting the acronym is widely used to describe special tax districts.

“For everyone who is getting off on getting offended, I apologize,” she said.

The meeting briefly delved into the plan itself, with a handful of supporters commending the recreation study committee’s efforts. Scheidel also highlighted over a dozen letters sent prior to the meeting voicing support for the plan.

The committee was slated to meet on Tuesday evening, after the Reporter’s deadline, to begin planning its outreach campaign leading up to the December 13 vote.