Board of Selectmen members ruled that Leo Bartolini will keep his seat on the Zoning Board of Appeals. The vote was contingent on Bartolini recusing himself from any Park Central proceedings until conflict of interest issues are resolved.
Each of the three voting selectmen read a long statement explaining their thought process and concluding with their decision. Opinions differed on the ZBA member’s treatment of residents. But all agreed his behavior wasn’t enough to take the unprecedented action of removing him.
And one member expressed regret over having held the removal hearing. While another indicated he had just recently reversed his opinion based on complainants’ attorney’s actions.
Chair Brian Shea’s recommended adding the temporary recusal as a condition. The other two members agreed without any debate.
Although not a condition, Selectman Paul Cimino directed Bartolini to work immediately with Town Counsel to correct his conflict of interest forms “within the letter of the applicable requirements” and not have any repeated errors going forward.
Many petitioners lobbying for Bartolini’s removal will likely be relieved that he won’t continue to weigh in on Park Central decisions. And that perceived political motivation by Park Central opponents was called out by selectmen as part of the reason for keeping the board member on.
Up front, Shea said that committee members shouldn’t be removed for the decisions they make. He explained that committees have to vote on difficult, controversial issues where there are strong arguments on either side.
All three selectmen said that legal issues on the process for Park Central and alleged conflicts of interest are outside their jurisdiction. Those will be ruled on by higher authorities – the courts and the Ethics Commission.
Their given reason for holding the hearing had been to decide whether or not Bartolini’s purported disrespect of residents was egregious enough to remove him.
One key example by complainants in the petition that prompted the hearing was Bartolini’s reference to a resident as “the girl”. There has been a lot of debate over whether or not the statement was sexist.
Based on the video of the incident, Selectman Dan Kolenda told the public that while it was “inartful” he saw no indication that Bartolini intended to be demeaning.
But Shea observed that both the resident and others in the room clearly reacted as offended at the time. He said the ZBA official should have recognized that and apologized then whether the offense was intentional or not.
Instead, as Shea recounted, Bartolini’s attorney later suggested that the offended resident should send a letter of apology for what “reeks of age discrimination”. Shea said that “turning the tables”, which he disagreed with, was the “most uncomfortable part of the hearing”. He said that situation came “the closest” to violating standards that had been given to Bartolini in a 2010 letter from selectmen.
And Shea told complainants that “on December 19th, you had me”. He indicated he had planned to vote for removal.
But between then and last night, they lost him. Shea said that a recent action “has tainted this jury member”.
He reconsidered his vote when the attorney representing the petitioners filed a complaint on their behalf against fellow board members John Rooney and Bonnie Phaneuf. The complaint alleges that the selectmen should have recused themselves from an executive session last August on complaints about Bartolini’s behavior. The letter to the Ethics Commission also complains about their presence in the room during the public hearing and related discussions.
Referring to his respect for his fellow selectmen, he said the new ethics complaint weakened the complaint against Bartolini, raised the credibility of the defense in his eyes, and introduced a level of doubt in his mind.
But Shea’s change of heart may be moot as neither of the other two selectmen indicated that they had ever intended to vote to oust Bartolini.
In fact, Cimino said that voting to hold the hearing was the only vote he has ever regretted making since he took office:
I believe that the issues in question were and are addressable by other means and I believe that at this point the motivations of both the petitioners and the respondent alike are open to question in terms of the best interest this town.
And selectman Dan Kolenda told the public that after viewing all of the evidence:
I did not find a clear and consistent pattern of purported abuse.
Kolenda did opine that the way officials and residents have been behaving is not “who we are or want to be”. He urged everyone to elevate the way we speak to one another. But he observed that often Bartolini’s argument with residents was based on residents being argumentative as well as speaking out of turn. And he pointed to residents that supported Bartolini as always looking out for residents and taxpayers.
Cimino had a much harsher assessment of Bartolini’s behavior. He said the former Chair’s demeanor was more than “rough around the edges” as defenders have labeled.
He referred to Bartolini’s interrupting of residents to tell them they are wrong and interrupting of fellow members. He called it inappropriate and furthered it was ridiculous that needed to be said. But he followed that perfection is not the standard.
All three selectmen expressed concern about the impact a removal (and even the hearing) would have on keeping and recruiting volunteers.
Shea opened his comments by referring to citizen petition articles to allow removal of appointed officials and recall of elected ones. He followed:
I’m sure that all eyes are on this proceeding to see if this decision might be an indication of what might potentially come from any other citizen volunteers.
And Kolenda reminded that they often have only one application for an opening. He said that out of the 10,000 residents, only a few (like Bartolini) volunteer put in countless hours to serve the Town.
You can hear their full statements here.