Majority of Select Board stands by its appointment process

Jan 16, 2020 by

Published January 16, 2020


NORTH READING — A full house greeted the Select Board at its first meeting of the year Monday night. What a difference a month makes.

When the board last met on Dec. 16 the room was virtually empty during their end-of-the-year appointments. But on Jan. 13, there were few empty seats.

They came to speak during the public comment period to voice their opinion on the appointment process at that meeting.

In a surprising turn of events, a new candidate for the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA), Bob Breen, was appointed to one of the two seats on that three-member board over longtime member Paul O’Leary by a split vote. Current chairman Jim Demetri was also reappointed to the post. The terms are for three years.

Subsequently, both Demetri and ZBA member Joe Keyes submitted their letters of resignation. They presided over their last ZBA meeting Jan. 9 after passing the baton to Breen and the three associate members, Jennifer Platt, Matt D’Angelo and Bill Bellavance, in an executive session held to bring all parties up to date on ongoing litigation related to the town’s appeal to the state Housing Appeals Committee (HAC) related to the 20 Elm St. 40B application.

Also in the interim, Select Board member Andy Schultz announced his intention not to seek a second term on the board when his seat is up in May. He wanted to give potential candidates time to step forward once nomination papers become available Jan. 21.

The Town Administrator’s office is now actively seeking candidates to apply for the two full membership seats on the Zoning Board and appointments may be made by the Select Board at its Feb. 10 meeting.

Select Board Chairwoman Kathryn Manupelli encouraged any townspeople interested in the full membership seats, including current associate ZBA members, to submit their name, citizen activity form and even a resume if they wish to be considered.

Public comments

The first to step forward was Andrea Spano, 3 Hayward Farms Lane. “I had heard Andrew Schultz is not going to be running for re-election so on behalf of myself, as one of the founders of Defend Ipswich River Communities, thank you for being accessible and generous with your time, willing to collaborate and always being transparent and providing mentorship on town procedures. And for continuously advocating for what you think is best for North Reading,” she said.

Jennifer Platt of 8 Hidden Pond Lane introduced herself to the board and let them know of her interest in seeking an appointment to one of the full seats on the ZBA. “I am a long serving associate member of the ZBA,” Platt said, acknowledging the loss of three long-standing members and their decades of experience.

A practicing commercial real estate attorney in Boston for over 25 years, Platt said she is a 21-year resident of the town and raised her family here.

“I’ve been on the Zoning Board as a way to stay connected to the town. I don’t practice in town so it’s my way to stay connected and to give back, and I am looking forward for that opportunity to continue,” she said.

Marci Bailey, 21 Duane Dr., and a former selectman, expressed her concern over the appointment process used Dec. 16 and how it made volunteers feel about potentially stepping forward. She was surprised to see that it was not an agenda item for that evening and asked that they reaffirm the policy or if they choose not to use the policy as it exists now to have a discussion about it.

“I would ask the board to consider that anyone on a board, committee or commission is a volunteer and I hope deserves your respect and the respect of all of us,” she said. “Longstanding members, it has been standard practice for them to be honored by the board… and not to be summarily dismissed,” Bailey said.

But Bailey added, “I agree 100% that you are the appointing authority and it is your right to appoint anyone the majority of you decide on.”

Both Bailey and the next speaker, John Murphy, stated they were speaking on behalf of themselves and not representing any of the boards on which they serve as volunteers.

Murphy, of 13 Duane Drive, is the town moderator and appointing members to the Finance Committee comes with that role. He pointed out the importance of communicating with the chair of the FinCom when making any appointment.

“I think what has happened is not respectful to the chairmen of the committees, to the chairman of that committee, and I hope it doesn’t continue,” he said.

Murphy is also a former selectman and explained, “when I was sitting where you sit I was involved in a situation where we had a change on a committee. The chairman knew, the committee member knew, everybody knew what was going to happen, and that is important… they need to know if they are not going to be reappointed,” Murphy said. “I think what has happened will potentially deter others from stepping forward to volunteer.”

The majority of the Select Board members stood by their decision-making process. Schultz, who is the current liaison to the ZBA and nominated Breen for the seat, stated, “I stand behind the procedure we have and I stand behind my vote.”

Select Board member Liane Gonzalez said, “I strongly stand by my vote” for Breen. She expressed dismay at some of the letters received by the board on the topic, and commented, “Mr. Demetri, I appreciate your service. I did not appreciate the need to slander board members.”

But she said she had found “most offensive” the implication in a the letter from associate ZBA member Bill Bellavance stating that “we should not vote with who is beside us. He was implying we do not know how to vote,” she said. “In closing, I am glad he revealed he is Jim Demetri’s cousin. It makes things clear.”

Chairwoman Kate Manupelli assured the public that the Select Board acted properly and within both Mass. General Law and the town’s charter, both of which instruct that the Select Board has the legal authority to appoint ZBA members and the board is not bound by any board policy. “Moreover, the board has the right at any time to waive its own policy, which the Select Board did on Dec. 16,” she said, adding she was opposed to the notion that someone would have to sit in a seat for years to “pay her dues” before being appointed to a full seat, if qualified.

Both Select Board members Steve O’Leary and Rich Wallner wanted the board to review its policy on appointments.

“The most important thing we have in this town is our volunteers,” Wallner said. “We have failed. I will do all I can to be sure that these policies will be followed.”

O’Leary said he had requested it be put on that night’s agenda but it was declined. After much discussion and a few gavels for being out of order, they were both asked to submit their proposed changes to the policy for future discussion.

“People should not be afraid to be constructively critical of this board or our actions,” he said.

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