As I shared in a “quick update”, a December 4th “public comment” incident made news after the selectman involved addressed it last week. But, it deserves more attention since it was under a headline about the blog’s technical issues and I have related news to add.
Wednesday’s meeting included a qualified apology from the board member who lost his temper and a call for improved, respectful dialogue between residents and the board. To improve transparency, the board added a new agenda segment. Plus the board approved some overdue Executive Session Minutes and cleared a slew of them for public release.
Breaking from tradition, the meeting didn’t allow for the public to comment. Considering the efforts to improve “listening” and “transparency”, I found it ironic that the board quietly eliminated public comment from agendas after the December 4th incident. So, I’m happy to report that it will return to agendas later this month.
Since many of you have already been following the story through other media and comments – I’ll start with what hasn’t already been covered.
Chair Lisa Braccio added a new standard item to the agenda last week. She told the public that the “Member’s Report” will allow any selectmen to:
share updates of meetings attended, items for future discussion or future events, experiences in town, or items of interest to the board. Items mentioned in this section have not been voted nor discussed with the board. . . So many things have been good and bad that should he shared with the board and the public that this is just another avenue to improve transparency.
Later, the board caught up on old Executive Minutes. Selectmen approved some outstanding ones and released 68 sets of minutes from past closed sessions. Those include previously approved but kept under wraps minutes from 2013 – 2018.*
Before you get too excited – many still had redacted discussions. Most at least clarified the subject discussed. (Though, a spot check showed that not all subjects are transparent.**)
Many of the discussions newly made public relate to legal matters now resolved. That includes legal battles with Northborough over our share of the Algonquin renovation project and the Gulbankian family over business zoning issues and fines. It also covers negotiations for agreements with the owner of 84 Main Street, St. Mark’s School, and more. Some reveal past performance evaluations and salary negotiations with Town department heads/chiefs.
Among items still redacted, some relate to salary/contract negotiations, union arbitration, and personnel discipline.
[Editor’s Note: Since the story relates to Louise Barron, I should disclose that her husband is a blog sponsor/advertiser.]
As I previously noted, Southborough Wicked Local covered the board’s call for improved public “discourse”. The story focuses on an incident between Selectman Dan Kolenda and resident Louise Barron at the December 4th BOS meeting.
The incident is a topic that has already been passionately debated in comments on the blog.*** Much of it was captured in video by Southborough Access Media. (See below links.)
During public comment, Barron made statements about the board having broken open meeting law by not having posted past minutes as required. Mr. Kolenda, acting as Chair in Braccio’s absence, referred to her comment as slandering public officials.
In an overlapping exchange, she rebutted that it wasn’t slander, he said that he was cutting off public comment, and she returned, “Look, you need to stop being a Hitler! You’re a Hitler!” as he called for a recess.
At that point the video volume was muted. Appearing to have verified the recording was stopped, but before the camera cut away, Kolenda rose and appeared to point and speak/shout angrily toward Barron. The board never returned to on-camera public session. (No other public items were left on the agenda.)
Since then, Barron has (through an attorney) filed Open Meeting Law complaints about the actions that night and the meeting minutes. According to the filing, Kolenda called her disgusting and threatened to have her removed. (You can see the full complaints shared in BOS packets here. You can also read SWL’s summary in its story.)
Under the “Member’s Report” on Wednesday, Kolenda made a qualified apology to the public that indicated both parties were wrong and called for improved discourse going forward:
Suggesting that this board broke the law on ministerial Record keeping sensationalizes the issue. I’m sorry that the incident occurred and I am sorry that I became visibly upset with the resident, but the reference was so incendiary, so inflammatory, that heightened emotion, as it can, resulted.
When we talk at or over each other, or resort to name calling and attempts at character assassination, we fail to hear each other. It is my hope that in 2019 and beyond we all listen to each other more, respect each other more, and work together more to move our town forward in a manner that we can all be proud of.
(You can view his full comments here, thanks to Southborough Access Media.)
Braccio echoed his sentiment about working better together in the future. And Selectwoman Bonnie Phaneuf followed:
I think that evening is behind us and we have just the future to look forward to Community, with respect for each other. Let’s not repeat it, whether this side of the table or as an audience member.
Ironically, “listening” was limited to a one-way conversation, since public comment has been left off of BOS agendas since the exchange.
The item was traditionally included on regular agendas. (I’d only noticed it excluded when special meetings were scheduled for administrative items, executive sessions, etc.) But it hasn’t appeared on an agenda since December 4th. Last Wednesday was the second regular-business, evening meeting held since the incident.
That didn’t mean that no words were allowed from the audience – but it limited them. The Personnel Board Chair was able to approach the mic to get the answer to a “process question”. But following that, just as she did the December 18th meeting, Braccio adjourned without asking if there were any comments from the public.
I reached out to find out when/if it would return to agendas. According to Purple, Braccio has asked him to put it back on the next regular meeting. That will be on January 15th. (It won’t be on the agenda for the meeting planned for later this week. The January 10th meeting is a special one dedicated to budget discussions between the board and Town officials.)
*Executive Session minutes released should cover the following dates: 2013 (Feb 12, Feb 26, Mar 12, Apr 8, Apr 23, May 7, Jun 4, Sep 3, Oct 1); 2014 (Jan 16, Feb 4, Feb 25, Mar 11, Mar 25, Jun 3, Jul 15, Jul 24, Aug 12, Aug 21, Sep 2, Sep 23, Oct 7, Nov 17, Nov 18, Dec 2, Dec 16); 2015 (Jan 20, Jan 22, Feb 3, Apr 7, Apr 13, Apr 28, May 19, Aug 11, Oct 20, Nov 3, Nov 17, Dec 1, Dec 15); 2016 (Feb 2, Feb 29, Apr 5, May 17, Jun 28, Aug 2, Aug 23, Oct 4, Dec 6); 2017 (Jan 3, Jan 25, Feb 7, Feb 21, Mar 21, Apr 3, Jun 6, Jun 22, Jul 7, Jul 19, Aug 1, Dec 5, Dec 19); and 2018 (Jan 2, Jan 18, Apr 9, Sep 5, Sep 12, Nov 7, Dec 18). You can find them and other BOS Minutes here.
**At least one set of minutes (December 2, 2014) includes a redacted discussion that remains mysterious – obscuring the topic and one or more participants. It also doesn’t explain what section of the Open Meeting Law allowed the exemption. (Although the related agenda listed collective bargaining as one of the exemptions for that session.) I didn’t come across others like that – but I don’t have time to examine each document.
***After a reader wrote about the exchange in an Open Thread, I watched the SAM video and recapped the incident for readers in the comment thread – pointing them to Southborough Access Media video links. There were several comments and a debate that got ugly. (It included a hypothesis that I later deemed out of line. I removed those specific comments and apologized to Selectman Kolenda for making the mistake of allowing them in the first place.)