In 2016, a group of residents sought to have Leo Bartolini removed from the Zoning Board of Appeals. Some also supported a filing with the state Ethics Commission accusing the official of wrongdoing. Now, the still-standing ZBA member is asking for the Town to reimburse him for over $12K in related legal fees.
The request will be discussed by the Board of Selectmen at their meeting this coming Tuesday night. According to the agenda issued today, the board will hear the request and potentially vote.
Bartolini’s attorney Warren S. Heller wrote to selectmen:
Mr. Bartolini, a dedicated public servant for many years, was clearly the target of a group of disgruntled, malicious and mean-spirited individuals with two separate agendas which were/are not necessarily exclusive of each other. Mr. Bartolini requests that the Board of Selectmen authorize reimbursement to him of the $12,124.50 that he had to spend in defending his actions as a duly appointed town official on the Southborough Zoning Board of Appeals. We realize that this is an unusual — but not unprecedented — request, and we hope to convince you that the circumstances in this instance not only warrant such a payment, but they require it morally and equitably. . .
He is asking you to decide that the Petitions for Removal and the Ethics Complaints were filed in bad faith with ulterior motives in an effort to subvert the decisions of the ZBA in which he participated.
The March 15th letter includes claims Bartolini was “exonerated of any wrongdoing”. That isn’t explained, but in his itemized billing, he refers to:
Received and reviewed Confidential letter addressed to me from Monica Brookman, Chief of the Enforcement Division of the State Ethics Commission indicating they “are not conducting any further investigation into [Leo’s] actions at this time.
In 2015-16 the ZBA, expecially Chair Leo Bartolini, faced massive public criticism for actions related to Park Central. Much of it centered on board decisions. But accusations included allegations about Bartolini’s verbal treatment of residents. In July of 2016, petitioning residents pushed selectmen to remove Leo Bartolini from the board. In petitions that summer, the complainants referred to evidence of repeated incidents of Bartolini being disrespectful to residents.
At the time, selectmen resolved the issue by meeting privately with Bartolini who volunteered to step down as chair but continue serving on the board. In September, a second petition with additional accusations again lobbied for Bartolini’s full removal from the board. In November, selectmen held a hearing to allow resident to make a preliminary case for official action. They determined that there was enough to trigger an official removal hearing.
In December, the board held the removal hearing where Bartolini was represented by Heller. Attorney Gary Brackett told selectmen he was representing the petitioners. Among Bracketts arguments for removing Bartolini were claims of ethics violations related to undisclosed and improperly disclosed conflicts of interest.
Following the hearing, and before the board reached a decision, Brackett filed ethics complaints against Bartolini. The complaint alleged potential criminal wrongdoing by Bartolini in support of Park Central. Selectmen cited that ethics investigation prompted by the filing as rationale for putting off a decision on Bartolini’s removal. They said they would wait to hear results.
In March, Brackett filed more ethics complaints, purportedly (and questionably) on behalf of all the same petitioners.* This time, it was against the two selectmen who had recused themselves from the hearing – John Rooney and Bonnie Phaneuf. Brackett argued that if they were conflicted out from the hearing, then they violated ethics when participating in past discussions and decisions related to Bartolini and Park Central. That action appeared to prompt the board to resolve the removal decision which was still hanging in the air.
When selectmen made their final ruling in April 2017 not to remove Bartolini, Selectman Brian Shea admitted that Brackett’s action had moved him against removing Bartolini. He referred to the accusations against selectmen as raising doubts about the credibility of Bartolini’s opponents. Then-Selectman Paul Cimino referred to voting to hold the hearing as something he regretted. He told the room, “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.” Selectman Dan Kolenda supported Bartolini as not having been “inartful” but not intentionally demeaning to residents.
You can read Heller’s full letter to selectmen here.
The BOS meeting is scheduled for 6:00 pm in the Town House Hearing Room. The Bartolini request is the first item on the agenda.
*Upon questioning, Heller has repeatedly publicly answered that he represents everyone who signed the September petition to oust Bartolini. To my knowledge, Brackett has never named with resident(s) paid for his services and were his points of contact for representing the group. Meanwhile, some who signed the petition to remove Bartolini have commented they were not aware of filings made taken against Rooney and Phaneuf and opposed being associated with that decision.
Updated (4/27/18 3:18 pm): I recalled a fact about the September petition worth pointing out. A member new to the Board of Selectmen since the 2016-17 meetings and decisions has a link to the issue that may be seen as a conflict. This could result in a decision again being made by 3 out of 5 selectmen.
A letter sent by resident Lisa Braccio in 2010 to the Board of Selectmen complained of Bartolini’s disrespectful treatment of her. Public records of communications around the incident were cited in the September 2016 petition as evidence of a pattern by the ZBA official.
Braccio didn’t sign the petition, and she wasn’t involved in using her letter for the complaint. But at the removal hearing, Lisa Braccio addressed selectmen on the issue. She said they hadn’t adhered to their 2010 promise in a letter to her, which stated:
courtesy, respect and open dialogue are absolute prerequisites for continued membership on the ZBA. There is no room for compromise on these conditions. A basic principal of our Town philosophy is to encourage volunteerism and participation. Anything that is done to infringe on those ideals will not be tolerated.
She said that in 2016 Bartolini continued to be “disrespectful and argumentative when someone says something he disagrees with.” She didn’t specify that Bartolini should be removed. But she said she was angered to see that the problem was clearly not resolved and the letter selectmen sent her meant nothing.
Braccio replaced Cimino, one of the three selectmen who ruled in Bartolini’s favor. The only other change to the board was Brian Shifrin replacing John Rooney. Rooney had recused himself from the matter. I’m not aware of Shifrin having any conflict of interest.