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Does ZBA chair have conflict of interest?

February 25, 2014

Updated with correction about David Carter’s involvement 3/4/14

The chairman of the Walpole Zoning Board of Appeals, the same town board currently at the center of a lawsuit involving a 40B affordable housing developer, is a cousin of the president of that development company – a relationship that she disclosed to town officials as required by law, but never publicly disclosed to residents.

ZBA Chair Susanne Murphy is a cousin of David S. Carter, the president of Barberry Homes, Inc., the company that is proposing to build a 174-unit affordable housing apartment complex on Moose Hill Road. Carter is a son of Murphy’s father’s sister, Maureen Carter (née Murphy) of Dover. Murphy’s father is the late J.D. Murphy, a local real estate developer.

Murphy filed a disclosure form with the Town Clerk’s office on January 9, as required by law, stating the relationship. On the form, she checked a box stating that she believed she could perform her duties “objectively and fairly” even in light of the relationship.

Under Mass. State Ethics Law, Murphy is allowed to vote on and discuss any matter related to her cousin’s company’s application, as long as she disclosed that fact with the Board of Selectmen – her appointing authority – prior to the meeting at which the application was considered. She appears to have met that requirement, though the mere disclosure does not necessarily give her full immunity from an ethics complaint and investigation.

Murphy never mentioned the relationship during the ZBA’s Jan. 22 meeting about Barberry’s application – a meeting that she presided over as chair. Residents of Moose Hill Road and surrounding neighborhoods packed the meeting room that night. Residents contacted by 180 last week indicated that they were only aware of Murphy’s relationship through rumor, and she never disclosed it to them directly at any time.

Carter is listed in the state’s corporate database as the president of Barberry Homes, Inc., and he is also listed as a “manager” of Barberry Homes, LLC, the entity that actually filed the Walpole ZBA application. Both companies are based at the same address in Framingham.

Carter has appeared at at least two Walpole government meetings related to the project – the Walpole Planning Board meeting on June 13, 2013, and the Mass. DEP’s walk-through on December 12, 2013 with the Walpole Conservation Commission.

Murphy’s household does not have a voicemail machine, and 180 was unable to get in touch with her, despite several calls to her residence. She did not return a message left with her husband.

Barberry Homes is currently seeking constructive approval from the state Housing Appeals Committee for their proposed complex in Walpole. Their argument for the constructive approval is grounded in the fact that the ZBA failed to hold a hearing on their application for a comprehensive permit within the 30 days required, by state law, from the time of the filing of their application with the ZBA on December 10. The ZBA did not hold its hearing until Jan. 22.

The ZBA is claiming that the application was in fact never completed, meaning the 30-day time window never started. The case has not been settled yet.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton forced part-time ZBA secretary Evelyn Splaine out of her job as a fall-person for the snafu. Murphy and the town Building Inspector are both supposed to be Splaine’s direct supervisor according to the position’s most recent job description, though Boynton apparently oversaw Splaine’s work directly.

The incident has raised questions about accountability at Town Hall, and why there was no oversight from the ZBA, Selectmen, or the Town Administrator to ensure the 30-day time frame was complied with, and why a part-time secretary was the last line of defense with such a critical application. Ultimately, the buck must stop at the top – the Town Administrator and his direct bosses on the Board of Selectmen who have overseen multiple significant scandals and controversies in municipal government during the past year and have responded to each one with, at best, deafening silence, and, at worst, attempts to shield it from the public.

What do you think? Should ZBA Chair Susanne Murphy recuse herself from further discussion and votes related to Barberry’s application?

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