Public Works Planning Board update

Chair defends 18 month of inaction; Planning appoints one of its own to be "proactive" member; July Meeting planned with Capital

Above: Planning Board members and the PWPB Chair disagreed last week over the role his board should be taking in providing public oversight of the Department of Public Works. (cropped from meeting video)

In recent months, some residents have publicly criticized the Public Works Planning Board (PWPB) as not meeting its responsibilities. They include critics of Dept of Public Works decisions in recent years that have argued the board should hold meetings for more oversight/public transparency.

In two weeks, the PWPB will meet for the first time in 18 months. Last week, a long time member was replaced by the Planning Board over the objections of the Chair who defended his board’s past inaction.

Since only one member has changed, there still may not be enough votes to change the Board’s stance on what is in its purview. However, the Chair’s defense pointed to an alternative way for critics to push the board to cover more items. 

On June 27th, the Planning Board voted 4-0-1 to appoint a new member to the PWPB. The abstention was by Debbie DeMuria, the Planning member who was voted into the seat. DeMuria has been one of the most public critics of the PWPB. She has opined that it should take a more active role in overseeing tree removals, budgets, and other areas.

PWPB member Sue Baust’s term was set to expire on June 30th. She was seeking reappointment. In the meeting, Planning members thanked Baust for her service. But they explained that they were looking for someone to take a stance on the PWPB playing a more proactive role.

The decision was based on Planning’s expressed agreement with DeMuria that the PWPB should have met more frequently and covered more items. Prior to the vote, PWPB Chair Bill Boland disputed that charge and urged for Baust’s reappointment.

There was a long discussion which included debate between the Board Chairs who disagreed about the PWPB’s role.

Since Boland joined and became chair of the PWPB in spring 2019, the board shifted from meeting at least 5 times per year (2014-2018) to only 1-2 times per year since. Their last meeting was January of 2021. Boland indicated the reduced frequency was simply based on what they were (or weren’t) asked to advise on.

The PWPB Chair repeatedly asserted that his board has no authority over the DPW and only serves in an advisory role. It is only required to act when the DPW head or the Select Board asked them to advise on specific items. He said they hadn’t been called on to advise on anything since their last meeting.

Planning members voiced concern with PWPB’s infrequent meetings. Planning Board Chair Meme Luttrell stressed that there are several advisory committees in town and they take more proactive roles, not just waiting for specific requests.

Boland countered by calling out DeMuria and the Planning Board for publicly criticizing his board instead of directly reaching out.

The PWPB Chair said that his Board was intended to be active in the initial phase of helping the DPW establish itself after departments were merged in the 90s. He claimed it wasn’t expected to continue active involvement once it was well established. He defended that if the DPW or Select Board had asked, the PWPB would have been willing to meet.

It’s worth noting that when public complaints were made earlier this spring, Select Board members responded that the Board isn’t appointed by them. Some members indicated they wished the PWPB would meet but spoke as if it wasn’t in their control. Yet, at their most recent meeting, the Select Board specifically instructed DPW Superintendent Karen Galligan to ask the PWPB to hold hearings on the proposal by Hopkinton to connect to Southborough’s MWRA water supply. It appears that she, and they, are complying with that request.

At the June 27th Planning meeting, Boland updated that the PWPB is scheduled to meet with the Capital Planning Committee on July 18th. In CPC’s meeting the same evening, CPC Chair Jason Malinowski told his Committee that Galligan asked both committees to vet the waterworks proposal and provide input on what process she should follow for vetting the Cordaville Road project. The purpose of the upcoming meeting is to make sure groups are working with the same info and begin collaborating.

In the Planning Board’s meeting, Boland said he was “disheartened” by Planning’s behavior in considering replacing a member without having reached out. Luttrell reminded that the former Chair had forwarded a letter to Boland about the issue and asked how that was “not reaching out”. Boland retorted, that they received a response to that.

I followed up with the Planning Department for the referred to communications. The letter referred to one submitted by Debbie DeMuria on March 13th (prior to her election to fill the seat vacated by former Planning Chair Don Morris.)

In her letter to the Planning Board (which copied the Select Board), DeMuria detailed her concerns that the PWPB and its chair hadn’t been meeting its responsibilities. Her biggest complaint, which she has publicly repeated since, was its infrequency of meetings in recent years. She argued that it had not been holding public meetings on projects that were under its advisory responsibilities based on a state statute.

She explained that the PWPB was formed by the same state statute that approved consolidating the former Cemetery, Tree, Water, and Highway departments into a Department of Public Works (DPW). The boards that had related to those departments were abolished and duties (including that of the Tree Warden) transferred to the Board of Selectmen. The PWPB was also established “to advise the board of selectmen in matters of planning, managing, and financing of said Town”.

She followed:

Southborough’s PWPB is out of compliance with the law and is not serving the residents of this Town. In fact, it is essentially defunct, having met only 5 times in the last 4 years.

The last PWPB meeting was held 15 months ago in January 2021.2 PWPB met twice in 2020, only once in 2019 and once in 2018. The topics discussed were narrow in scope, including reviewing minutes, revising transfer station rules and fees and discussing Complete Streets priorities. The most recent meeting in January 2021 produced no meeting minutes despite a request from the Town Clerk’s Office, a violation of Open Meeting Law and Town Code §9-25.

The PWPB Chair’s refusal to hold regular meetings and to promptly comply with Open Meeting Law reflects poorly upon the Town

At the top of DeMuria’s recommended actions moving forward was asking the Chair to resign or transfer chairmanship to another member, and appointing two new members in place of those whose terms were ending in June.

The letter was forwarded to Boland by the Town Planner. On the 15th, Morris followed up to make sure Boland had seen it. He noted that he letter had been mentioned at the meeting the night prior “but was not discussed because we wanted to make sure your Board had seen it and allowed to comment.” He followed with an invitation for Boland to call him to discuss it.

Boland’s reply was angry and dismissive of DeMuria’s complaints. Both on Monday and in the letter, Boland highlighted that DeMuria clearly had him confused with someone else.

In the letter, she referred to questions raised about the board’s independence by having a former DPW Superintendent as Chair.[1]

It appears DeMuria conflated the backgrounds of Town officials Bill Boland and John Boland. Bill Boland has served on many Town boards/committees but has never worked for the DPW. (Though, as a former Selectman for 9 years – most of those when it was a 3-person board – he did serve as one of the DPW’s bosses.)

John Boland is the former DPW Chief. (Since retirement, he has volunteered for the Main Street Design Working Group and the Golf Course Committee, but not the PWPB.)

Boland’s emailed response on the 15th was:

I’ve seen it but so far have restrained myself from responding. Another citizen who feels they were “wronged” by Karen or the DPW so they want to try an end around to get their way. I would have expected someone on ZBA and who is running for your job to have their facts right. She thinks I’m John Boland and should be disqualified because I worked for DPW. He would probably be the most qualified citizen we could have on the Board. Plus someone on an appointed board trying to throw another committee under the bus and doesn’t have the courtesy to copy us in the letter. I have no respect. The PWPB has NO authority over the DPW. In fact the PWPB is highly supportive of Karen and the DPW. As well in 2019 we voted that we had no interest in expanding our role. We do not believe in meeting just to be on TV. They can do that in Wayland. The DPW is a well run department. People in this town need to let Department heads and employees do their jobs.

During the June 27th meeting, Boland acknowledged that one member of the PWPB, Select Board member Sam Stivers, had pushed for the Board to expand its oversight into areas that Boland believed weren’t in their purview. he was outvoted 4-1. 

At last week’s meeting, Boland told Planning that his board wasn’t meant to oversee the DPW and repeatedly asked if there should be boards to oversee police and fire. Luttrell rebutted that those officials don’t redo road intersections and take down trees.

Supporting Luttrell’s and DeMuria’s position, member Marnie Hoolahan argued that holding PWPB meetings more regularly would provide residents with more transparency on projects.

Boland had noted that residents with comments on Public Works projects could make them to the Select Board. Hoolahan said that the public comment is really only at the beginning and end of the meeting. It doesn’t allow the kind of back and forth that is generally encouraged in PWPB hearings.[2]

Hoolahan pointed to the planned intersection changes at Flagg and Deerfoot Road as one that could have used transparency. She said that Planning only knew about it because the Town Planner flagged that trees that were planned to be removed were on scenic roads. Boland pointed out that Flagg and Deerfoot was addressed in a past PWPB meeting.[3]

Later, Planning Member Jesse Stein said he agreed there were communication issues between the two boards. He believed that having a member of Planning serve on PWPB would help improve that.

Baust said that she doesn’t have an agenda. She just wants to see things work right and that’s what she tries to do. She didn’t believe the board should have been more proactive in the past. But based on the feedback was willing to ask about what projects were coming up and if there’s anything they should look into.

A main point of contention was how much oversight or transparency is needed over the DPW. Hoolahan argued that what they can’t have is employees of the Town making decisions on behalf of the community. That was a sentiment Boland showed disdain for in his comments. He advocated against having residents look over department heads’ shoulders.

That was consistent with his past public reactions to calls for increased transparency.

In March 2014, he disagreed with fellow Select Board members about forming a committee to publicly work through details of the Main Street Reconstruction project in response to resident concerns.[4] He said that was the Select Board’s role and no matter what they did they’d hear the same complaints about communication and only get 50% support.

In the 2015 race for the Board of Selectmen, Boland disagreed with opponents who pitched ways to improve Town transparency. He told attendees at candidates night that it was the latest “buzz word”. (He lost that race.) He also lost his subsequent run for Town Moderator in 2017. That year he didn’t outright argue against Transparency, but he ignored it as an issue at Candidates Night while opponents pitched ways to improve it.

[1] I had heard public references that there were multiple former DPW employees on the Board. I didn’t know who that referred to, and missed that people believed Bill Boland was one of them. (I did recently find that member James Harding was a longtime DPW employee. He was just reappointed to his term by Moderator Paul Cimino.)

[2] The Select Board does actually often allow some public comments during their agenda items. However, it is true that that is sometimes limited and there isn’t the same back and forth as there is during hearings.

[3] An agenda and minutes for June 11th confirm that. The agenda stated that the board would discuss the intersection and plan. Minutes document that the plan was for ” more of a T intersection” to improve safety. The work was to be scheduled for the summer of 2019.

[4] The Board did eventually end up creating a committee, in response to debates on Town Meeting floor. In order to defeat a Citizen’s Petition version of a committee that they argued would cause problems for the MassDOT funding of the project, the Select Board promised Town Meeting voters it would appoint its own group. The Main Street Design Working Group has since been lauded by officials and repeatedly held up as an example of finding consensus on controversial projects to gain needed support from Town Meeting. (Sue Baust was one of its members.)

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