Select Board votes not to reappoint two longtime volunteers to SHOPC and CPC (Updated)

Who is "making it personal"? Claims and counter claims between Select Board Chair and CPC member. OSPC, Stewardship, and some members of SHOPC and CPC were reappointed.

On Tuesday night, the Select Board voted against two of the members of Town committees whose terms expire at the end of this month. They opposed reappointing Doriann Jasinski to the Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee (SHOPC) and Kristin LaVault to the Community Preservation Committee (CPC).

The unanimous vote against LaVault was made without first allowing public feedback on the decision.

Board members who voted 2-3 on Jasinski’s reappointment claimed that the decision this summer wasn’t about her personally. Instead it was about their work to reconfigure the committee’s makeup.

No such claims were made about the decision against LaVault. In fact, Select Board Chair Kathy Cook opened that discussion by claiming that LaVault was acting in animus to her and the board and appeared to be publicly opposing anything they supported. LaVault later disputed that claim, stating that it appeared to be Cook and the board that were making things personal.

CPC Chair Ben Smith warned the board that not appointing LaVault, their Vice Chair (and representative of the Recreation Commission), would harm the committee by taking away a committed member who does “an exemplary job” and leaving them with another vacancy that leaves them with a bare quorum.

The meeting also included a discussion with the Stewardship Committee and Open Space Preservation Commission about their members and proper roles.

It was a long night. So, I’m breaking up my recap into the following sections:

  • SHOPC Discussion & Reappointment Votes
  • CPC (including comments limited prior to votes on reappointments)
  • OSPC & Stewardship defend their “lanes” and maintain their status
SHOPC Discussion & Reappointment Votes

One reason for CPC’s quorum issues is the vacancy for SHOPC’s seat since the board rejected appointing Jasinski, SHOPC’s Chair, to that vacancy last summer. At that time, the board said they wanted to shake things up since SHOPC hadn’t succeeded in bringing forward affordable housing projects.

Jasinski started off her reappointment discussion this Tuesday by avoiding subjecting herself to the experience she had last summer “under the pretense of having an interview.” Refusing to sit at the table, Jasinski told the board from the podium:

I’ve done a good job. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to. . .

So you can either vote yes to reappoint me or vote no. But you are never going to be given another opportunity to insult me or to defame my character.

Cook responded that no one was defaming her. She noted that the board had tasked a five person working group that included Jasinski and another SHOPC member to come up with a recommendation to bring to the Fall Town Meeting on September 30th, to ask voters to create a new affordable housing committee. She stressed the need for members who have expertise with developing affordable housing, something none of the current members had (except for Hamilton’s experience through volunteering for Habitat for Humanity).

Cook wondered to fellow board members how Jasinski could do that work if not reappointed. Hamilton said he was torn since the Town’s affordable housing efforts had been a complete failure.

Stivers said he opposed reappointing anyone to the committee while they were looking at the big changes. He opined that not reappointing her wouldn’t preclude her from participating in the working group, following that he thought it would be more “helpful” if she wasn’t still on SHOPC.

Planning member Lisa Braccio who is also on the working group told Cook:

You’re saying that in Sept we’re all going to work together and come up with something else. . . but you’re not going to appoint her to the committee that’s probably going to go away. So she can’t participate in the business of SHOPC until September? I just think the optics of that Kathy are just horrific.

Over zoom, Select Board member Marguerite Landry interrupted:

Can we all take a deep breath here? This is getting really unpleasant.

Braccio shot back that she had a right to tell the board when she disagrees with something they are doing.

Grant Farrington commented to the board to point out that they shouldn’t assume that a change to the committees will be approved by Town Meeting in September.

Cook and Landry were outvoted in their support for reappointing Jasinski. But after Hamilton said he gave great weight to Jesse Stein being an elected official, only Stivers voted against reappointing Stein as Planning Board’s representative on SHOPC.


Comment issues
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Cook told the public that the opening public comments were only for items not on the agenda. Although she didn’t specify why, in past meetings, she had explained that the time for public comment on agenda items was during the board’s discussion of the item.

But on Tuesday, Cook repeatedly insisted on not allowing public comments until after the board voted on their decisions for certain reappointments including to the CPC. [Editor’s Note: I have noticed similar behavior in the past on other topics, but this time stood out as clearly intentional.]

Additionally, a letter I was copied on addressed to the Select Board, by Jenny Peet, a former member of the Stewardship Committee, claims that public comments were cut off at the meeting “when some members of the public tried to indicate they were waiting to speak”.*

Civility Concerns vs Alignment with Board views
In their prior meeting, Hamilton made clear his view that committee members appointed to the Select Board should not undermine the board’s positions.

This week, fellow members didn’t show full support for that view. But two members made clear that they opposed LaVault based on her public comments outside of her work on the CPC and two other members didn’t clarify their views.

In discussing CPC appointments, Dennington said members have the right to tell the board when they disagree but it should be conveyed in a way “which is civil” and that he had concerns with one member.

Smith interjected, that he clearly meant LaVault who “has no doubt spoken passionately” about some disagreements with the board. But he said that she is “one of these rare volunteers in Town government who actually does put the work in” and he didn’t want to lose her.

Cook spoke about how LaVault had impressed her years ago in how she handled the Kallander Field project, including taking all kinds of barbs at Town Meeting. But now she sees someone who seems “to intentionally oppose what [the board wants] on purpose for no sincere reason”. Cook claimed to have gotten a phone call informing her that LaVault has a problem with her and the Select Board because they didn’t appoint Jasinski to SHOPC:

There is clearly animosity in her voice when she talks. She constantly comes to our meetings and raises her hand over and over and over and over. And interrupts.

She claimed to have a list of examples. Ones she referred to were generally ones in which LaVault spoke as an individual or member of Recreation, not in her role on the CPC. The exception was Cook’s claim that the committee had supported asking Town Meeting to increase the surcharge to 3% then later changed their mind because of negative things LaVault said. Smith rebutted that there was “much more” to that issue but wasn’t sure Cook wanted to get into the weeds. Cook agreed she didn’t.

Much later, when allowed to speak, LaVault defended to Cook:.

I actually think you’re making this personal. You started the conversation saying some game of telephone. . . you just discredited me and I have no idea what you’re talking about and you have no evidence.

LaVault went on to explain that her upset with the board had begun with their discussion about potentially selling developing or selling 21 Highland Street:

I’ve been volunteering for over 10 years. Have I been different this past year? You better believe it because as of last October, I started seeing behaviors on this board that were concerning. You know why I go to so many Select Board meetings, because things would come up that weren’t necessarily on the agenda. . .

I have the list of issues. And I can go back to the recordings. Each time, I was upset not at you, not at Mr. Dennington, about the way that the conversation was going and the way the board was holding themselves.

LaVault said that the discussions last fall about 21 Highland St “snuck in there”. [Note: The board had listed “the future use of” the property on its agenda. Although, researching potential development or disposition of the property was on their list of posted goals that summer, the agenda didn’t specify those stakes. LaVault and others were upset that the board hadn’t made reached out to the surrounding community for input on he board’s plan to pursue a Feasibility Study which originally wouldn’t have solicited feedback from neighbors, Recreation, and other committees until after an RFP for the study was drafted.]

When LaVault detailed issues that she had with the board that prompted her speaking out, Landry interrupted multiple times over zoom. Pointing to the late hour, she called to end the discussion and just take a vote. Cook said that she and LaVault could talk off line, but she believed LaVault had made her point.

Braccio interjected that as someone who was also up for reappointment, she had something to say. Referring to the Mass Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling on public comment allowing criticism of boards, Braccio’s remarks included:

It would be nothing short of retaliation to not appoint [LaVault] based on her right of free speech regarding her views of the actions and evaluation of this board and would set this town up for a huge potential liability. I would encourage you to create a policy, if you feel strongly enough about your expectations for volunteers, and I would be interested in Town Counsel’s opinion based on the prior litigation.

Prior to the board’s unanimous vote not to reappoint LaVault, neither Stivers or Landry specified why they were casting their votes.

Quorum issues

Smith tried to dissuade the board from voting against Lavault by stressing that without her help making quorum for meetings last year, they would have been stopped in their tracks during a difficult application season. Cook indicated that she hoped that an earlier appointment they made to the OSPC would end up helping fill its seat on the committee to offset the quorum issue. (Scroll to the bottom for more on that vacant seat and new appointment.)

Affordable Housing Funds
Prior to LaVault being allowed to speak, Smith (whose term was also expiring) was asked about his position on moving Affordable Housing funds out of the CPA to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

Hamilton and others advocated for the future committee to have access, enabling the Town to bypass the Town Meeting process so it could respond more quickly and flexibly to opportunities.

Smith said the committee wasn’t comfortable transferring money to a committee that doesn’t exist yet for a project that is unknown. He described a compromise scenario in which the committee would approve an application where the town could describe an amount requested and the type of project funds would be used for without the specifics.

The CPC Chair advocated that without those guardrails, the board would face too many headwinds at a Town Meeting to get approval for transferring the funds. He pointed out that the Select Board could think of the CPC’s actions as working towards an Article that voters would approve.

There was a long back and forth between board members and the Select Board about how CPA funds and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund should work. Jasinski interjected to point out that wasn’t on the agenda and state that the discussion should focus on the reappointments. But the board continued, undeterred.

When later asked about her views on accessing affordable housing funds, LaVault told the board that she and the committee were in full agreement with Smith.

Delayed Project Closeouts
Smith was also questioned about the committee being behind in closing out projects and returning unused funds to the proper financial buckets. Hamilton pointed out that the delay was despite having a consultant (Freddie Gillespie) on their payroll to assist them.

The Chair explained that no projects had gone unfunded due to the amounts that hadn’t been returned yet. He stressed that he had made the decision this year to put off working on the closeouts since the next funding cycle would be effective July 1, 2025, buying them time to prioritize other work first.

This past spring, he convinced the committee that the most important priority was to revamp their application and process handbook to avoid repeating problems they ran into over the last funding cycle that made the process “chaotic”. But this summer, he and Gillespie will visit each project site and look through application and project paperwork to make sure all the boxes are checked. He plans to have a stack of completed projects ready for the board to vote out as closed in September.

Two reappointments did pass
In the end, the Select Board voted unanimously to reappoint Smith and Braccio to their seats on the CPC before rejecting LaVault.

Cook noted early on that she loved working with Smith. Other members didn’t specifically criticize Smith or Braccio, or specify why they reappointed. But given that Braccio passionately criticized the Select Board that night and in prior meetings, it’s worth noting that she represents an elected board. (That was Hamilton’s earlier stated reasoning for Stein’s reappointment to SHOPC.) LaVault’s primary position on the Recreation Commission and Smith’s on the Conservation Commission are Select Board appointments.

LaVault’s current Recreation seat will expire next June. (Although two Select Board members’ current elected terms expire first — Cook and Stivers.)

OSPC & Stewardship defend their “lanes” and maintain their status

The board had also called in the Open Space Preservation Commission and Stewardship Committee to discuss reappointments and whether their committees should be merged. After long discussion, the board agreed not to further pursue merging them at this time and to reappoint all of the members to each. (Scroll down for more details on that discussion.)

Based on prior comments made by Hamilton and Dennington, there had been concerns that some of those reappointments were in jeopardy.

Committee Authorities Questioned
Hamilton and Dennington both opined about committees not exceeding their charges or straying from their lane. That was something that both argued OSPC was guilty of but disagreed on regarding Stewardship,

Hamilton argued that their charge to manage Breakneck Hill Conservation Land for the Conservation Commission didn’t give them the authority to comment on private parcels that abut the land:

I think this is a slippery slope because there are a lot of abutters to the Breakneck property. . . is the Stewardship going to opine and act on an official basis when somebody wants to build a swimming pool, or somebody wants to put up a fence or shed?

Hamilton’s beef was mainly fueled by upset that when the Select Board pushed to support a development at 120 Turnpike Road due to a desire to increase affordable housing in town, he perceived appointed committees as saying, “not in my backyard”.

Other board members opined that both Stewardship and OSPC were doing their jobs when voicing their concerns about the impacts that the original 40B plans could have had on the abutting Town Forest. Both board and committee members pointed out that the project now appears to be headed towards a compromise to give both the developer and conservation land protectionists most of what they were pushing for.

But Dennington sided with Hamilton in opining that OSPC shouldn’t comment on plans in front of permitting boards for private parcels that aren’t protected open space. OSPC Chair Freddie Gillespie gave a presentation on their work and defending their actions as in keeping with their charge and past advice from Town Counsel.

Gillespie (and, later, Planning Board members referred) to OSPC’s traditionally defended role related to input on subdivision site plans’ compliance with open space bylaws. That was among the issues Dennington raised. But he and Hamilton also referred to OSPC’s opinion on requiring that site plans for a privately owned property (Fayville Hall) include native plans.

In defense of that, Gillespie referred to the definition of open space as “”anything open to the air and sky” and including green spaces. She argued for their need to protect the “ecological integrity of all the land”, stating that the loss of 30% of common backyard birds over 50 years has been due to lack of native plants.

Gillespie also stated that it was up to the state’s Inspector General to determine if they had exceeded their charge. She told the board that when the issue was raised last year, she contacted the office where an official advised that their charge was broad enough to encompass their work. If the board wanted to narrow OSPC’s scope, Gillespie said they would have to bring an Article to Town Meeting.

Because one member, Leslie Naditch, had an expiring term, Dennington questioned her about her views on OSPC’s authority to opine on plantings on private properties. She responded that she couldn’t speak to putting native plants on private property, but would instead focus on educating the public on the benefits of native plants and biodiversity.

Although not allowed to comment until after the reappointment (and new appointment) votes, Planning Board members later expressed anger over Select Board members interfering with how they conduct their permitting business. Chair Meme Lutrell clarified OSPC has submitted its opinions in response to their requests from the Planning Board for input, something the board has done for decades.

No board members voted against the reappointments of either committee, but Hamilton and Landry abstained from voting on the Stewardship appointments.

Merging Committees Scrapped
Cook reiterated that her reason for wanting to talk to the committees was to explore merging them into one more effective committee. She and Stivers asserted that the overlap in the two committees’ focus would allow each to continue their good work. They believed it would relieve administrative issues over quorum and minutes taking.

Stewardship Chair Joyce Greenleaf explained that their committee had its hands full doing its job managing the conservation land, including protecting it from invasive species. Gillespie said that she is OSPC’s representative on Stewardship but other members weren’t interested in working to clear trails, etc. And Stewardship had no desire to get involved in reviewing site plans. Each committee had unanimously voted their desire to remain separate.

[Editor’s Note: I reached out to Stewardship to get photos to share that were shown at the meeting, demonstrating their accomplishments. They show in order — invasive bittersweet that was choking plant life and surrounding trails like tunnels, the same view after it was eradicated, and a bobolink that was able to take advantage of the nesting grasslands:

Breakneck Hill Conservation Land overrun by bittersweet (contributed photo from Stewarship Committee) Breakneck Hill Conservation Land - same vantage point after invasives were controlled (contributed photo from Stewarship Committee) Bobolink recently photographed at Breakneck Hill Conservation Land (contributed photo from Stewarship Committee)]

Gillespie took responsibility for OSPC’s delayed minutes issues on her committee. (Stewardship didn’t share that problem.) She said that there had been turnover and lack of understanding of responsibilities by less experienced members but that it had been her responsibility to see it got done. She promised they were working on it, stating that the biggest holdup was putting together the documents discussed at each meeting. She believed that would be done within a month.

The discussion also referenced that the pending new member had specified an interest in minute taking.

Cook and Stivers indicated they still believed a merger would make sense but deferred to the committees’ current will.

As part of the discussion, Dennington opined that the five year term on OSPC was too long. Gillespie defended that becoming educated enough to do the work is a long process, so the longer than usual term makes sense.

OSPC Vacancies and Vacant CPC seat
One reason that Cook had hoped to merge committees was to avoid quorum issues on OSPC due to current vacancies. Gillespie claimed that she initially had two more volunteers lined up to join the committee, but the way the Select Board had treated their newest member Joan Levenson during her interview for the appointment had changed their minds.

After reappointing existing members, the board interviewed a new member for the committee, Sara Warden. Warden was pressed by Dennington on her view related to OSPC’s authority. She responded that her personal preference is to present alternative options rather than telling people what they need to do.

Dennington also asked about her interest on an issue that was previously raised, OSPC’s vacant seat on the CPC. Cook noted she didn’t think it was fair to push her on the spot for that. And Gillespie responded that her commission would first have to explain the responsibility to Warden and even if she was interested, they would need to vote on it.

In the earlier discussions that night, Gillespie defended that she hadn’t opposed members joining CPC. But the new members didn’t feel experienced and educated enough to volunteer to represent OSPC on the committee. (Not specified in the discussion, because Gillespie is CPC’s consultant, she can’t also occupy the OSPC’s seat on that committee.)

*You can click links to read letters to the Select Board shared by Jenny Peet and former Conservation Commissioner Jeff Peet about their dismay over the board’s actions on Tuesday.

Updated (6/21/23 8:39 pm): I forgot to actually add the links to the Peets’ letters that I referenced as linked above.

Updated (6/21/23 11:25 am): I added photos from the Stewardship Committee that they had used to demonstrate their successful efforts at Breakneck Hill Conservation Land.

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