Town Planner: search reboot, screening committee meeting and a power struggle

by beth on August 15, 2013

This week the Planning Board was forced to reboot their search for a Town Planner after public criticism caused the town to re-examine their process.

And in the midst of the quest to fill the seat, a power struggle is taking place over the new hire will report to.

Search reboot

Last week I reported on The Metrowest Daily News story questioning the lack of transparency in the search for a Town Planner. According to MWDN, the story caused Town Administrator Mark Purple to consult with counsel on the matter.

As a result, on August 9th, Purple instructed the Board to begin the hiring process again.

“Essentially, because the (town planner screening) subcommittee was not properly created, all work done thereafter was null and void,” Town Administrator Mark Purple wrote in an Aug. 9 email to selectmen and other town officials. “In order to correct these deficiencies, the Planning Board needs to formally vote to create the subcommittee, and the subcommittee needs to complete the hiring process again.”

That vote was supposed to take place as part of an open meeting with sufficient public notice.

A new Screening Committee Meeting is now scheduled to meet tomorrow morning at 8:30am in the Town House Hearing Room (agenda).

The vote to appoint that new subcommittee didn’t quite take place as publicly scheduled. However, Purple does believe that they followed protocol.

The Planning Board agenda listed their meeting as taking place Tuesday in the Hearing Room at the Town House at 7:15 pm, with that item scheduled for 7:30 pm. This would apparently have been during the time of their joint meeting with Selectmen.

The joint session was delayed to 8:00 pm. There was extensive discussion at the BOS Meeting involving the Planning Board, but the vote on a sub-committee didn’t take place.

As Selectmen were wrapping up their meeting (a while after the Planning Board left the Hearing Room) a resident asked Selectmen about the discussion about a sub-committee. To his confusion, Selectmen informed him that the discussion had apparently been taking place “in the Planning Board Meeting” elsewhere.

Purple explained today:

My understanding is that a board or committee meeting can be adjourned to a different location (announced by the Chair), so long as the meeting is called to order in the location that is stated on the agenda. The Open Meeting Law says nothing to the contrary.

As I was paying more attention to my meeting than theirs, I have to assume that Don called their meeting to order prior to meeting with the Selectmen and Advisory, and then announced they were adjourning to another location; you would have to check with him.

It would make sense for them to adjourn to another location, given that the Selectmen were still conducting their meeting. I know of at least one member of the public that was with them when they adjourned to the other room to finish their agenda.

I was unable to contact anyone today. (Blame me – they weren’t hiding, I just didn’t have the time to track anyone down). And I have to confess that as committees were leaving the room, I was approached by a couple of residents.

So I’ll have to give benefit of the doubt on this one.

Power Struggle

While the search to fill the vacancy continues, a citizen petition is lobbying to have the Town Planner report to Selectmen and the Town Administrator instead of the Planning Board. The petition was initiated by Zoning Board of Appeals Chair Leo Bartolini. MWDN reports:

Bartolini said he filed the petition because he believes the town would maximize resources by having the town planner work on projects for boards and committees other than the Planning Board. He said Purple would be in the best position to direct such efforts.

At Tuesday night’s BOS meeting, Morris argued that the Planner could report to the Planning Board while being a shared resource.  He requested Bartolini hold off to give a new hire the opportunity to prove that could work.

Bartolini rejected the request and pressed for the Special Town Meeting in the fall to include that measure. (His quest to collect enough signatures to compell a town meeting was largely the reason the October 7th meeting wasn’t cancelled. But more of that in a future story.)

Selectman John Rooney made a special point that whatever happens, the Planning Board will have full access to the Town Planner. He said that he would not state an opinion on how the vote should go. But he wanted everyone to understand that this was not an attempt by Selectmen to gain more power.

At the BOS meeting, Bartolini explained that he has wanted to do this for a long time. He voted against the Town Planner position as it was written. The argument in favor had been that the position and title were ideal for getting grants. He is frustrated at how little progress was made by past Planners in doing that.

As of the Tuesday night meeting, Bartolini purported to have collected 169 signatures. (MWDN reports that many of those signatures are present and former town officials including “members of the ZBA, Conservation Commission, Economic Development Committee and financial Advisory Committee.”)

1 John Butler August 15, 2013 at 6:49 PM

The degree to which the Planning Board has openly disregarded the law is just stunning. The quote from Mark’s letter only captures part of it. After creating a subcommittee without having anything referencing hiring a new planner on any agenda, which is a violation, then the subcommittee met repeatedly without ever posting any meeting notices whatsoever. The Planning Board gets to the end of this chain of illegalities and think they are about to hire someone. When it is pointed out that none of this is legal, various claims surface briefly that it wasn’t a subcommittee or it wasn’t a public body subject to the open meeting law, none of which are even remotely sustainable. Fortunately Mark Purple, the Town Administrator did the right thing and put an end to this madness (using his authority under the new bylaw passed by Town Meeting in April). The public should understand that the Open Meeting Law is not some obscure statute that is difficult to interpret. Every member of Town committee is given copies and guides to the law at the beginning of each term in office.

This is a case in which, in addition to Mark Purple, we need to thank Brad Petrishan of the MetroWest Daily News for doing the classic job of a newspaper. Lastly these are my views, not connected in any way with my role on Advisory Committee.

2 Susan August 16, 2013 at 4:09 PM

But Mark Purple shouldn’t be giving benefit of the doubt or assumptions at all…it should be this happened or it didn’t. Did they call the meeting or didn’t they? And, after learning of their disregard for the law, this shows they are thumbing their notice at the law and the residents. Why leave room for any doubt at all and just go about it the wrong way? How and why does it seem Southborough gets away with following their own rules and why don’t more people stand up and point this out? Transparency seems lost on this small town—from the Board Of Selectmen to committee members and employees.

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