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Examining the “Coffee Pot Incident” 37 years later

July 1, 2013

At least until Cliff Snuffer was elected this past June, to replace outgoing Selectman Eric Kraus, the current Walpole Board of Selectmen has gotten some attention for their relative amicability with each other.

The current Board rarely spars with each other, and even controversial issues are usually lopsided ones – with only one member of the Board, such as Mike Berry, taking a stand on an issue against the four other members. Arguments between members are generally kept behind closed doors, while hard feelings and grudges are rarely brought up in public.

Though Snuffer’s election might shake things up a bit, he still has very positive relationships with each of the other Selectmen and the Town Administrator. He also shares many of their political views either way.

If the current Board represents the best of political cooperation, the 1976 Board of Selectmen probably represented one of the more chaotic times in Walpole political history – at least depending on who you ask.

The 1976 “coffee pot incident” at Town Hall stands out in the memories of many local political observers and historians as one of the craziest incidents ever to occur at Town Hall. But the three Selectmen still living who were involved in that incident say it wasn’t a big deal and, in fact, was blown out of proportion by the media. Even then, it marked the low point of controversial tenures for two of the Board’s members at the time.

Selectmen Ed Averi and Bob Foster spent much of their coinciding time on the Board of Selectmen from 1974 to 1977 arguing with each other regularly. Their long-running feud, which included the “coffee pot incident” in December 1976, partly ended up costing both of them their political careers – they were voted off the Board together in 1977 and replaced by Jo Ann Sprague and Albert Scott.

Read the below December 2, 1976 front page Walpole Times article to find out what the “coffee pot incident” was all about:

Foster emerges from executive session soaked with coffee

Selectman Robert Foster walked out of a loud and stormy executive session Tuesday night claiming that Chairman Edward Averi had pushed him against a wall causing a coffee pot to topple onto him.

Shortly before Mr. Foster left the executive session that had been convened to discuss the substance of two letters sent to Mr. Foster by Town Counsel Alphonse Query, loud and angry exchanges could be heard from behind the closed doors of the selectmen’s meeting room.

The executive session was voted by selectmen who justified meeting in confidence on the grounds they wished to discuss matters involving the reputation and character of board members.

The meeting became so heated at times that complete sentences like “You’re a damned liar” were clearly projected through the glass door of the room into the adjacent hallway for all to hear.

Following a loud crash, Mr. Foster, red-faced and short of breath, exited the meeting room. His jacket sleeves were wet with coffee. As he stood in the hallway wiping himself with a handkerchief, he replied to a question about what had taken place saying “Mr. Averi pushed me against the wall and the coffee pot came down on top of me. That’s the only comment I have.”

At the conclusion of the meeting, Mr. Averi denied having pushed Mr. Foster. When asked why he thought Mr. Foster had said he had been pushed, Mr. Averi replied, “I have no idea. I certainly didn’t push him.”

According to Mr. Averi, Mr. Foster slipped on a long extension cord attached to the coffee urn that sits on a ledge directly behind the selectmen’s desks. “I submit that in backing up from his seat Mr. Foster slipped against the extension cord of the coffee pot and pulled it on himself,” Mr. Averi said.

Mr. Averi’s interpretation was corroborated by Selectmen Frank Farinacci and John Campbell. Selectman Thomas McCormack said he was unable to see exactly what had happened from his seat at the far left corner of the room.

Mr. Campbell added that after rising from his seat, Mr. Foster said “I don’t have to stand for this.” Then after tripping and pulling the coffee urn onto himself, Mr. Campbell continued, Mr. Foster shouted to Mr. Averi “I’ll get you for this.”

After the meeting reopened in open session, Chairman Averi said the board had voted that the two letters which were the subject of the closed meeting would remain “executive and privileged information of the Board of Selectmen until such time as the subject matter is adjudicated by whatever course of action various parties may take.”

He explained that the two letters from town counsel to Mr. Foster contained statements in response to questions which Mr. Foster had posed to Mr. Query.

Before entering executive session, Mr. Foster and Mr. Farinacci disagreed over Mr. Farinacci’s request that the letters be made a matter of public record.

Mr. Farinacci said that he wished to release his copies of the letters because they respond to questions publicly raised by Mr. Foster concerning a possible conflict of interest concerning his dual positions as a selectman and sewer and water commissioner.

Mr. Foster differed, saying that the letters in question were personal correspondences addressed specifically to him and as such he and he alone should have the prerogative not to disclose them until he sees fit. He said that the letters, if released now, could jeopardize the “welfare and financial interests of the town.”

A tape recording of the executive session has been made, but like the two letters, it too remains the “privileged information of the board.”

Selectmen Farinacci and Campbell are now deceased.

Averi, Foster, and McCormack all still live in Walpole, but each of the three, reached individually by 180, said they don’t think the incident was as significant as it was made out to be. Foster said the media exaggerated the story.

Averi said he and Foster rarely talk to each other today, though they aren’t arch-enemies either. Each of the three, who are all older than 80, had only limited memories of the incident. They did not have much recollection of the contents of the supposedly controversial letters from Query to Foster, or whether copies of the letters still exist today.

Although Town Hall has copies of Selectmen meeting minutes going back to the town’s founding, meeting minutes from that executive session could not be obtained and were not included in the official compilation of 1976 Selectmen meeting minutes. Executive session meeting minutes are supposed to be included in the official compilation once they have been declared non-confidential. Meeting minutes, whether from executive sessions or not, are required by state law to be retained permanently.

Similarly, although a tape recording of the executive session was evidently made, 180 has been unable to obtain a copy of it.

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