[Ed note: My Southborough accepts signed letters to the editor submitted by Southborough residents. Letters may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
To the Editor:
Last week, after 21 years of service to the Town of Southborough, I resigned from the Southborough Historical Commission before four members of the BOS—Lisa Braccio, Martin F. Healey, Andrew Dennington and Chelsea Malinowski—could vote to remove me over questions involving $1600 in receipts I submitted for expenses in 2016 and 2017. After one hour of arguments, the BOS grudgingly admitted the $1400 didn’t go to me (the Historical Commission hired a college student to do web design), but it seems that two hosting bills I submitted may—or may not—have been paid twice, once to me, and once to my company.
Even though my attorneys pointed out that the error—if any—was on the part of the Town Accountant, and that these charges had been approved by the then chair, Joe Hubley, the SHC treasurer, and all the other members of the Commission, it was clear BOS minds had been made up long before we entered the room. A complaint was promised to the state ethics board to boot.
So how could a possible $200 mistake six years ago lead to this?
Intersections vs Indian Burial Grounds
There is a little piece of land commonly called St. Mark’s Triangle, between St. Mark’s Street and Rt. 85, and owned by St. Mark’s School.
As many may know, the current intersection of St. Mark’s Street and Route 85 often floods during heavy rains. This is largely the result of St. Mark’s constructing a stone wall across from the school’s main entrance years ago, which prejudicially altered the surrounding grading. But the Town, instead of requesting St Mark’s remediate the storm water problem they caused, apparently decided that this would be a good excuse to move the old intersection southward, through the center of the triangle.
This was clearly a terrible idea: unnecessary, horribly expensive, and requiring the sacrifice of a large swath of century-old trees. It would also demand a land or easement swap with St. Mark’s, both of which require voter approval at Town Meeting. However, the project was much favored by St. Mark’s, as reported to me by a member of their administration, because it would give them greatly expanded parking for sports events and easier access to their playing fields.
Fortunately, the project remained unfunded, especially since the Historical Commission had long known that there were many burials outside of the Old Burial Ground, and that considerable evidence pointed to the fact that the Nipmuc burial ground lay adjacent to the Old Burial Ground on St. Mark’s land. As recently as this past spring, when the Historical Commission wrote the BOS about the racially disturbing flags they were allowing several individuals to fly in the Old Burial Ground, the Commission reminded the BOS that hundreds and hundreds of unmarked graves lay in and outside of the walls. This letter went unanswered.
By State law, proposed roadway construction on land adjacent to sensitive historical sites must be preceded by an archaeological survey to make sure no graves are present, but neither the BOS nor St. Mark’s seemed bothered by that ominous possibility.
The Story Begins
In the fall of 2020, Mark Purple notified his employee Karen Galligan, the head of the DPW, that there might be a way out of their funding problem: the State’s Shared Streets program. He sent Ms. Galligan, who is herself an alumna of St. Mark’s School, to lead the negotiations with her alma mater.
Over the course of 2020 and 2021, plans began to solidify. It turned out if the Town proposed a “History Walk” along with a few other add-ons like a pocket park to what was really a road project, the DPW might receive an additional 290K! As part of this pitch, Ms. Galligan requested that the Southborough Historical Commission write a letter of support. She provided the Commission with some conceptual plans which showed a wooded park-like area on Town land next to the Old Burial Ground and an extensive trail system linking the museum, the Old Burial Ground, and the library.
As it turns out, the plans submitted to us were either incompetent or manufactured for the purpose. They inaccurately represented the ownership of the parcels, and differed in almost every aspect from what was finally proposed. The final plans ultimately cost the town roughly 150K to develop, money which came out of the DPW budget.
To reiterate: Ms. Galligan came to the Historical Commission in December of 2020 asking for a grant letter of support for a “History Walk,” which the Commission provided. But it turns out Ms. Galligan never intended to build a “History Walk” with these funds. As she stated in her 3 March 2021 letter to Freddie Gillespie, Chair of Open Space: “The history walk was just a concept that was floated to make the grant proposal attractive. However, it is not set in stone or funded under the grant, or part of the spec that is being bid.”
In other words, Ms. Galligan is admitting to Ms. Gillespie that she deliberately misrepresented the facts in order to receive a 290K grant from the State to build a “History Walk” she never intended to build. The signatory on this grant proposal was Selectman Martin F. Healey.
On 2/3/21, the award was announced. Here is the quote directly from the State website: “Southborough received $290,000 to support the implementation of a new Southborough History Walk, to include the construction of new sidewalks on Marlboro Road (Route 85) and St. Marks Street, a new plaza/gathering area adjacent to the Public Library, and paths around the Old Burial Ground.”
Keeping Things Quiet
This plan was kept obscure, apparently because Mr. Purple, Ms. Galligan, Mr. Healey and Chair Braccio knew the Town would be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of state funds to improve St. Mark’s land, without proper easements, land transfers, or approval of Town Meeting. The proposal itself was buried in a 500-page PDF detailing the remaining projects around Main Street. As Marty Healey wrote to Karen Galligan on February 9, 2021, “I think we can get away without a full-blown contract between the Town and St. Mark’s but we’ll need something.” And then he adds, “what hard costs might there be if we (the Town) did some of the heavy lifting on the gravel parking [for St. Marks?]. (It turns out the answer was another 20K of Town funds, as later correspondence identified.) Mark Purple was in on the scheme, too. Writing to Marty Healey from his iPhone on 16 December 2020: “I agree that this can move forward without an official vote of either the EDC or BOS. [Such a vote would have alerted the public – MW] The Selectmen always have the ability to decline an award if it so chooses (as unlikely as it may be.)”
Things remained in murky limbo until the fall, when Ms. Galligan suddenly became alarmed that the town would lose the funding if the work didn’t start soon. So, without a formalized agreement in place with St. Mark’s—in total violation of the order of conditions for the grant which stipulates no work can commence if the plans have changed in any substantive way or if all agreements with private owners weren’t signed and in hand—trees started to fall. Over a period of two days, the entire parcel was clear-cut, and the lumber apparently given away for free to the contractor.
The Historical Commission was alarmed and many residents were horrified. As chair of the SHC, I immediately wrote to the BOS, requesting cessation of work until the SHC could be sure that area contained no graves. That letter went unanswered, as did another from the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC), advising cessation of work.
St Mark’s school now claimed it wasn’t their project, despite the fact they were apparently quite involved in planning a project which would give them improved sidewalk and intersection access, as well as a park and new parking lot at no cost to the school.
(One early version of Ms. Galligan’s proposal actually recommended taking the playground equipment at South Union School and moving it to the new park, which would only benefit the children of St. Mark’s faculty.)
But all this back and forth about the Native burial ground did have one effect: according to an email from Mark Purple to Marty Healey dated 8 November 2021: “Marty, agreed on both fronts. Also, Lisa has been doing a tremendous amount of research, with Karen’s assistance, to prove that the Nipmuc burial ground is within the confines of the Old Burial Ground, despite the crudely drawn maps in books that may indicate to the contrary.”
The book with the “crude” drawings Mr. Purple is referring to is our official town history, Fences of Stone, written by Nick Noble more than 30 years ago. Nick had access to now lost documents of Reverend Cheney, minister of St. Mark’s church more than a century ago and who was hugely interested in the early history of Southborough, having also written a short history of the town. I personally spoke with Nick Noble in December, and he assured me that the Triangle almost certainly was the site of the Nipmuc burial ground, as Reverend Cheney’s other observations had proven to be correct. This location was the consensus of the SHC, MHC, as well as representatives of the Nipmuc Nation.
However, that narrative didn’t suit the road project. As Mark Purple’s 11/21/21 email to Marty Healey reveals, the Chair of the BOS, Lisa Braccio, and the head of the DPW, neither of whom are historians or trained in archaeology, tried desperately to invent facts and rewrite history to save themselves.
They of course failed.
The Missing Easements
Throughout the fall work continued on the project illegally, as the “interim licensing agreements” between the Town and St Mark’s, which were a requirement of the grant, were not signed by the BOS until late November. By this time, public outcry had begun to mount. Why was the Town spending public money to improve private property? Why did so many century-old trees have to be cut down? What actually was the “park” going to contain? Who would it benefit? And most cogent of all, what happened to the History Walk, the original purpose of the grant?
Adding to BOS woes were those pesky “licensing agreements,” which were arguably actually easements, making their use without Town Meeting approval illegal. This is a deplorable practice, which essentially forces voters to approve land grants and projects ex post facto, and robs ratepayers of their right to weigh in on projects BEFORE they are started.
(In fact, I found this practice so egregious that in January, I placed before this year’s Town Meeting a citizen’s petition, condemning the practice and censuring the BOS for their use. We will be voting on the article this May.)
On Monday January 31, 2022 I received a notice from Mr. Purple summoning me to a BOS “HEARING” the following Tuesday. Despite my protest of lack of due process, BOS/Purple refused to move the hearing. In a few short days, I was forced to search for and hire counsel, provide a multi-thousand-dollar retainer, sort through 6- and 7-year-old records, and bring my legal team up to speed. On February 8th, my attorneys and I met with the BOS, who initially wanted to proceed immediately. Eventually a postponement was agreed till the 17th.
This is how Ms. Braccio began on the 17th, taken directly from my notes:
“To start out with a little history about how we got here: On 30 November 2021 while consolidating old files at the townhouse Ms. Hale, discovered a copy of a lease for the Flag School between the Town of Southborough and the Southborough Historical Society that had expired in 2017. She verified agendas that no renewals were discussed and verified with the Town Accountant that the minimal lease payments had not been made after 2017 as required. Ms. Hale then shared the information with Mr. Purple, Town Counsel and me. I asked Ms. Hale to print out the accounting leger for the Historical Commission from 2007 as the lease specified fuel, utilities and electricity were responsibility of the lease holder. And I wanted to verify when the Historical Commission started paying any or all of the expenses. During my review, three items from 2016 and 17 attracted my attention….”
Does anyone else see multiple issues with Ms. Braccio’s “explanation?”
Ms. Braccio is claiming that while investigating a lease between the Town and the Southborough Historical SOCIETY (an independent 501(c)(3) organization, whose records she has no access to), she directed Ms. Hale to look at the minutes of the COMMISSION, and to pull the records of the COMMISSION, which had never been signatory to the lease, never made the lease payments, nor had anything to do with the building, other than paying the water and internet at the Museum for the last few years while it met there.
How many thousands of dollars of taxpayer-funded salary were committed to this investigation? Ms. Braccio admits to using town personnel for weeks in November to search back through records dating to 2007. And the result? A promise of an ethics complaint based on $200 in payments approved six years ago. All of this could have been resolved with a simple phone call either to me, or the former SHC Chair, Joe Hubley, who approved these reimbursements in 2016 and 2017. The fact that such an obvious solution was never attempted reveals the purely retaliatory nature of Ms. Braccio’s motivations, and should infuriate every tax-payer in Southborough whose money she misused.
And putting the veracity of Ms. Braccio’s statements aside for a moment, consider also the chilling toll that this reckless attack will have on future applicants for town office. I was forced to spend over $10,000 of my own money (and counting) to defend a volunteer position I had held for 21 years—all because of an “investigation” launched by someone who can’t even explain or defend its rationale.
Why would any sane person subject themselves to this kind of liability in the future?
Public Records Requests and the Damning Truth
As Mr. Dennington admitted during the hearing, one of the things that particularly “bothered” the BOS members were the repeated public records requests which I and other concerned citizens have been making and continue to make. (They are the source of the quotes contained here, and now publicly available to all via the Town’s website at https://southboroughtown.nextrequest.com/).
It seems the BOS has good reason to be concerned. Just a few days ago, I came across this 9 March 2021 email from Kathy Cook, head of Advisory, to Karen Galligan et al: (Boldface emphasis below is mine.)
KC: ”Now — final question for now. It appears that we will have no road funds (Warrant or Chapter 90) to use for other routine paving projects until at least 7/1/23. Do you agree with that statement?”
KG: “No — we will have the $325k that is voted at this Town Meeting…..However, we will not have sufficient funds to bid and award a $1.5M road maintenance contract as we have been doing every other year (on average). That does not mean that there is no roadwork happening though… Looking at projects is a new view for the Town, we may have to adjust our budgeting if roads and road projects become a higher priority than in the past.”
KC: “And if you do — does that not concern you?”
KG: ”I would love to have more money in the road maintenance coffers…. The Town changed this dynamic, and understanding, this year when the Town wanted to aggressively pursue the shared spaces grants and also wanted to have some projects available to get ‘shovel ready’ quickly. The road article and Chapter 90 are the appropriate places to fund these sudden projects.”
KC: “And I am on capital planning committee and had no idea the town’s share of the St. Mark’s project is $1,000,000.”
KG: “Again, I do not know what the final cost of this project will be. However, because it was such a fast track from inception to bid, the project was not fully formulated, or designed, when the Town decided to pursue the grant. It is a good project, it is not as frugal as I would generally make a project, but the timeline dictated the process… The actual project didn’t go through capital or advisory, although the marching orders from all was to try to get the funding. The Selectmen had to decide on the project based on conceptual plans, not the actual project. The design was completed after the grant was received, and the estimate was developed…
Over a Million Dollars and Counting of Public Funds Have Been Spent on the St. Mark’s Project While Road Repairs Go Lacking in 2022-23
To clarify, the exchange between Ms. Galligan and Ms. Cook confirms that the Town has spent over ONE MILLION DOLLARS, and counting, on the St. Mark’s project.
PLUS, THE TOWN MUST NOW DEFER ROAD MAINTENANCE UNTIL July 1, 2023 BECAUSE IT SPENT ALL ITS FUNDS ON THIS BOONDOGGLE.
ALL OF THIS IN A YEAR WHEN THE BOS INTENDS TO HIKE YOUR PROPERTY TAXES BY AS MUCH AS 20%
Aftermath and Future Steps
- St. Mark’s School must complete the required archaeological survey recommended by the Massachusetts Historical Commission before any further work, road, reforesting or otherwise, can be contemplated on the triangle. It is their land, their responsibility, and frankly their heritage, and St. Mark’s needs to be accountable, if for no other reason to make credible their claims of respecting cultural heritage and diversity. Upon completion of such a survey, if St. Mark’s still wishes to build a parking lot, it should do so under Planning Board supervision, and at its own expense.
- Southborough should immediately return the 290K awarded from the state for the “History Walk” or ensure that the project is completed legally and within the specifications approved by the state. An investigation should also be launched as to whether the Chapter 90 funds also used in the project were done so legally. The State mandates that these funds be expended only on locally owned roads. We do not “own” the proposed termination of St. Mark’s street—the school does. Given the severity of allegations noted throughout this letter and the involvement of numerous current members of Town government, any investigation must be conducted by outside, independent agencies, such as the State’s Office of the Inspector General as well as the Massachusetts Ethics Commission.
- NO MORE PUBLIC MONEY SHOULD BE SPENT ON THIS PROJECT
- The easements proposed at Town Meeting should be rejected.
- Voters should approve the citizen’s petition to discourage this practice in the future.
- The BOS must stop jealously guarding its privileges and instead own up to the fact that the physical and horticultural infrastructure of the Old Burial Ground is bordering on critical collapse. Either the BOS needs to proactively maintain the headstones and restore the tree cover, or it needs to turn that authority over the SHC, which, as a Commission, could fundraise and contract with outside parties to preserve our most important archaeological heritage.
- Finally, we should work with the Nipmuc Nation to memorialize their contributions to our town’s history. In whatever format this turns out to be, it should be on town-owned land with input from accredited historians and design professionals.
Former Chair of the Southborough Historical Commission