BOS reappoints Historical Commission members and promotes ZBA alternate (who calls for more women to serve and more training from Town)

by beth on June 21, 2019

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The Recreation Director wasn’t the only appointment that the Board of Selectmen approved this week. They also dealt with some committee re-appointments and new appointments that I previewed last week. That includes the two that had looked uncertain earlier this month.

Even after the appointments and reappointments were made, vacancies remain on important boards and committees. Anyone interested in raising their hand can click here. As is backed later in this post, there’s especially a need for more women on some committees. (Really on most committees.)

Reappointments – including Historical Commission

This week, selectmen continued to look at reappointments for committee members with expiring terms.

As I posted last week, it looked like before members of the Historical Commission could be reappointed, they would have to sit in the hot seat. Selectmen wanted to question them about an ethics complaint they public filed against a selectman. The board indicated that they wanted Historical Chair Joe Hubley and member Kate Battles to answer questions about their actions last June.

This week, selectmen shared that the members were unable to attend this meeting.

Selectman Dan Kolenda said he respected the members but based on their public actions, which he previously called unconscionable and retaliatory, he couldn’t vote for their reappointment.

Selectman Sam Stivers moved to reappoint the members. He asserted that they had shown themselves capable in their roles and doing good work. He recommended giving them the benefit of the doubt and presumed that they had learned something from the situation. He urged the board to follow Selectman Marty Healey’s advice from the previous meeting and keep emotions out of it.

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio had seconded Kolenda’s call earlier in the month to bring in the Historical members. Following Stivers comments on Tuesday, she stated that her questions weren’t based on emotion. She asserted that she had very specific questions she wanted answered.

Braccio followed that she had the opportunity to speak to members. Saying that her questions had been answered, she assured a “level of confidence in what they have relayed to me about going forward”.

Other than noting he had filed a new conflict form, Chair Brian Shea made no comments on the matter. Selectmen voted 4-1 in favor of the reappointments with Kolenda in the minority.

As I previously noted, if either member wasn’t reappointed, the commission would have been without a quorum at the end of this month.

Kolenda also asked to speak with Freddie Gillespie, whose term as chair of the Community Preservation Commission is expiring. Town Administrator Mark Purple said that Gillespie is resigning from that post.

The board unanimously voted to reappoint all other members of committees listed as having indicated they want to be reappointed. I didn’t catch any mention or vote on the listed potential new appointment for Hubley to fill a vacant CPC seat reserved for a Historical member.

ZBA promotion

On Tuesday, Selectmen also appointed a new full time member to the Zoning Board of Appeals. It was a promotion of Alternate member Michael Robbins, to replace outgoing member Andrew Dennington. That vote was preceded by an interview.

Robbins is a real estate attorney who lived in Southborough as a child, graduated Algonquin, and moved back 3 years ago. He was on the Grafton Board of Appeals for five years. He told the board that serving on the ZBA scratches an intellectual itch. He also noted a responsibility to serve the community and his ability to fill a town need.

Over the last two years, Robbins has regularly attended ZBA meetings. He only recalled having to serve on about two matters in the past year.

Answering several questions about potential for conflicts, Robbins noted that he didn’t forsee much but would recuse himself when any came up. An example of that would be if a realtor he works with submits an application. With gray areas, like a former real estate client, he would seek advice from the ethics commission.

Robbins agreed with Stivers that it makes sense to recuse based on a reasonable appearance of conflict, even when there isn’t a technical/legal one. He qualified that he wouldn’t let extreme opponents/proponents push him to unreasonably recuse himself.

Kolenda asked Robbins where he would come down on controversial projects, on the side of the developer, residents, or the law. Robbins said he doesn’t believe in taking a pro or anti development stance:

The minute you start putting in your own biases you’re letting everyone down.

He told the board that he finds that thresholds are very low for special permits. He said if you need zoning relief and meet the criteria, it’s that simple.

He followed that he is very strict on zoning variances. As far as he is concerned, sorry, there’s not a legal right for one. He objected to other boards/towns “handing them out like candy”. Kolenda agreed, stating that Town Meeting had taken that right away. Robbins clarified that was use variances, most variances that come before the ZBA aren’t for use.

Stivers, a former ZBA chair, agreed that the threshold for variances is very high. He said that Southborough’s ZBA has historically granted about 80%, which is flipped from most other communities. But he also urged that the ZBA shouldn’t be such a slave to the law that practical/reasonable things can’t be done. Robbins indicated agreement.

Prior to joining the ZBA, Robbins spoke out at in a failed attempt to persuade the board against height variances to allow lighting for Mooney field and Richardson tennis courts. In a 2017 hearing, Robbins told the board:

the hardship is not a public want or need. The supreme court, Mass SJC, “unless circumstances relating to the soil conditions of the land, shape of the land, or topography of the land causes the hardship, no variance shall be granted lawfully”

Answering what he would do if that matter came back to the ZBA, Robbins said he would probably recuse himself due to his passionate feelings. He opined that the Town broke a promise it had made to residents.*

As for potential future controversies, he assured that he was too busy to let residents angry over his decisions get to him.

ZBA Vacancy  – training and women wanted

Robbins’ promotion leaves a second alternate position to be filled. Those positions have one year terms. Alternates are used as backups in case a full time member is unable to attend or has a conflict of interest.

Robbins said that Dennington stepping down was a shame, noting his extensive knowledge. But his statements also pointed to the opportunity the two vacancies present. He called out the need for more women to join the board: 

We’ve got to get more balance. Trust me, as someone who practices in front of the old boy network on a regular basis, more women are definitely wanted in those seats, because they really bring separate perspective.

Braccio agreed with Robbins’ sentiment. Currently, only one woman is serving on the ZBA, which has five full time members and two alternate seats.

In the interview, Robbins also advocated to selectmen that the Town should have a program for handling new members with “real concrete training”.

Responding to the note that Town Counsel has held training, he said that they always need additional training. He gave an example of having attended a 40B class on his own expense. He said the training need was for new alternates to be ready to “step into shoes”. Saying it was something he had previously pushed for, Stivers agreed with Robbins about the need.

Robbins did clarify that Southborough’s ZBA is probably one of the “best constituted” with qualified/knowledgeable members.

*While Kolenda asked Robbins about the project at Finn (which was the Mooney Field lights for baseball), I believe Robbins’ broken promise comment was referring to the Richardson Court lights at Neary. Both projects were in front of the ZBA and Town Meeting at the same time. In 2017, Robbins told officials that in order to secure resident approval for building Trottier School, the Town had promised there would be no lights for fields on the shared school campus. I’m not aware of claimed promises around Finn School.

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