Selectmen to hold “unprecedented” hearing on removing Bartolini from ZBA

Above: Selectmen heard from residents asking to remove a ZBA member from the board (image cropped from SAM video)

Last week, the Board of Selectmen allowed petitioners to make their case against Zoning Board of Appeals’ Leo Bartolini. Residents accused the former Chair of disrespectful behavior that has eroded public confidence in the ZBA.

Their arguments held enough weight with selectmen that they agreed to pursue to the next stage in the legal process. Selectmen agreed to submit written charges to Bartolini and schedule a public hearing to decide whether or not to remove him “for cause” from his post.

Residents’ charges included intimidating the public, showing partiality to proponents by making arguments on their behalf, deceiving the public by making promises and not keeping them, and not collaborating with other boards.

Plus, multiple speakers claimed that since stepping down as Chair, Bartolini has continued to disrupt meetings by behaving as though he is Chair. For example, he is the only member to frequently interrupt other speakers.

In the end, selectmen agreed to move ahead with the next stages for potentially removing the former ZBA chair from the board.

BOS Chair Brian Shea opened the discussion on Thursday night by explaining the process. He clarified that last Thursday’s meeting wasn’t a removal hearing. Instead, it was used for residents to convince selectmen that there was cause to proceed with charges.

The Chair then outlined that the ZBA’s decisions related to Park Central could not be cited as cause. Shea said that the ruling was under court jurisdiction now.

Shea said a hearing to remove a sitting public official was unprecedented in Southborough history. Later that night, selectmen indicated that they had tried to avoid the necessity by individually speaking to Bartolini. They refused to specify that they had asked him to resign. But it was clearly insinuated that the topic had been unsuccessfully addressed.

Some residents have accused or insinuated Bartolini’s motives for decisions were corrupted. But at least two selectmen made clear that they didn’t support those accusations. 

Selectman Dan Kolenda said that the public commenters have the right to be treated with respect. But he reminded the public that Bartolini has been a public servant to the Town for years. Selectman Paul Cimino followed that it was important to distinguish between Bartolini’s comportment at meetings and his decisions.

Cimino said that selectmen shouldn’t be looking over other boards’ shoulders and questioning their decisions. If they imposed their wills, what was the point of having boards. But he agreed that they should weigh in on how a board treats residents and conducts its meetings.

Though Park Central decisions were repeatedly referenced, arguments against Bartolini mainly focused on his demeanor towards the public. Summing up what others had described as bullying, resident Ben Keyes told selectmen that Bartolini actions amounted to intimidation. He believed Bartolini’s demeanor towards commenters made some residents not feel safe about speaking their minds.

Former ZBA Chair Sam Stivers told selectmen than Bartolini’s behavior has been an issue for years. He said that when he was chair, he struggled continually to regulate Bartolini’s behaviour. He sometimes failed, resulting in some of the letters cited in the petition dating back to 2010.

Selectman Bonnie Phaneuf said the 2010 and 2007 incidents referenced in the petition had been resolved at those times. And she claimed that a writer of a 2010 letter told Phaneuf she was upset to see the letter now being used, since that incident had been resolved.

All four attending selectmen voted to hold a public hearing for Bartolini to defend himself against charges. They were uncertain about some details and would be seeking advice from counsel. Bartolini might be entitled to labor counsel from the Town. And while they planned to target November 12th when all five members would be present, they were unsure if it was sufficient notice.

One resident asked if selectmen had the authority to suspend Bartolini. They didn’t think so. According to Shea, there was nothing he found in state law enabling them to do that.

Later that night, Bartolini participated in ZBA hearings, helping to deny appeals to a decision related to the Park Central Use Variance.

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