Board of Selectmen concerned about Historical Commission’s behavior last June, may not re-appoint members

A dispute between the Historical Commission and members of the public continues to have rolling repercussions three years later.

Last June, the Board of Selectmen refused to reappoint Michael Weishan to the Historical Commission. The decision was reached (5-0) after calling Weishan before them to answer some questions about the “tone and tenor” of an email he sent in fall 2016.

Two weeks later, the commission reacted to actions of that night by publicly filing an ethics complaint (4-0) against a selectmen. The commission claimed that Selectman (now Chair) Brian Shea wasn’t fully transparent when he explained the situation to fellow board members. (They also claimed that he hadn’t disclosed relevant facts to the Ethics Commission when he was cleared to participate in that discussion.)

That month, the Board of Selectmen scheduled, then cancelled, a meeting to review and discuss a response to the complaint. Since then, the Ethics Commission has purportedly ruled in Shea’s favor, not finding a violation.

Now, one year later, selectmen are publicly reacting to the filing. Rather than automatically reappointing the two members of the commission with expiring terms, they are calling the members in to answer for their actions. If they don’t choose to reappoint both members, the commission is likely to be without a quorum come July.*

The issue was raised at last week’s Board of Selectmen meeting. The board unanimously supported asking Historical’s Chair Joe Hubley and member Kate Battles to explain their actions at selectmen’s next meeting. That meeting was planned for the evening of June 18th, though the agenda is still to be posted.

It’s worth noting that Hubley ran for the board this past spring. If the outcome of the May election had been different, he would currently be serving on the board that is calling him in.

Last Tuesday’s discussion was prompted by the board’s annual votes on reappointing members of committees whose terms expire June 30th. Prior to the item, Shea told the board that an Ethics complaint that was filed by two people on the re-appointment list. He said that the Ethics Commission communicated to him that the complaint was resolved in his favor.

Shea told the board that all he had cared about was getting that result. He cleared with the Ethics Commission that he could participate in the reappointments since he was able to act fairly and impartially. He furthered that he planned to reappoint both members in question.

Other selectmen weren’t as willing to let the issue go. Selectman Dan Kolenda specified that it was Historical’s members who filed the complaint. He claimed that he wouldn’t have had an issue with them filing the complaint confidentially as any individual is allowed to. He objected to the public manner in which they chose to do it and share it with this blog and Metrowest Daily News. He also objected to Hubley’s action of reading the filing into the commission’s record. 

Kolenda followed that the actions were unconscionable and he believed retaliatory, in retribution for Shea initiating the board’s decision not to reappoint Weishan. He said that he wasn’t willing to reappoint the members without them explaining themselves.

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio said that she agreed. She lamented that the commission didn’t have a conversation with selectmen about their issues. Later, she reinforced that process is important to her. She argued that if the commission had concerns, they should have come to the board before going over them, outside of Town borders, and attacking someone’s credibility.

Although they weren’t on the board at the time issues erupted last June, selectmen Marty Healey and Sam Stivers agreed that the Historical members should address the issues.

Healey said that he knows both members well. As Vice Chair, he told the board he had prepared for the discussion in case Shea had been conflicted out. He went back and reviewed the great deal of papers generated. He told the board that it looked like emotion was clearly in the air at the time. He urged the board to keep emotion out of the next conversation.

The board maintained that they respected the members for work they do on the Historical Commission. Braccio said that she didn’t want this issue to cause a problem for the Commission’s ability to do its work. Selectmen referred to their responsibilities overseeing the Burnett House preservation restriction and the demolition delay bylaw. 

It wouldn’t be the first time the commission had too few members to act. (Though it might be the first time that happened despite having enough residents willing to serve.)

Historical was without quorum for a significant period back in 2013. Issues over the planned demolition of the Burnett House in 2014 helped spark public interest in the commission. Since then, the commission’s responsibilities have grown. So, lack of quorum would pose an even bigger problem now.

In addition to duties mentioned above, Historical is also responsible for overseeing other work under Community Preservation Act grants. Plus, the commision’s involvement is required if anyone applies to take advantage of the Historic Adaptive Reuse bylaw adopted in 2017.

As for Shea’s involvement in last week’s discussion, he refrained from comment during most of it. The BOS Chair did state that he will need to reevaluate how he participates in the follow up. He opined that the issues behind the complaint shouldn’t be discussed, just the manner in which it was filed. He clarified that the complaint was filed with, handled by, and resolved by the Ethics Commission. Noting it was a fine line, he said that if conversation “gets into” the complaint, he won’t be there.

*The seven seat commission already has three vacancies. Last summer, selectmen filled one of three vacancies (after the ethics complaint vote). This past winter, member Kate Matison passed away. If even one of the two reappointments isn’t made this month, the commission will be left with no quorum after June 30th. . . unless two more volunteers step up to take their place.

(Even if both members are reappointed, the commission could still use more help. If you are interested in joining them, click here.)

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