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Finger-pointing continues, now it is up to Selectmen

March 24, 2014

Ted Case and Daniel Cunningham stepped down from the Walpole Zoning Board of Appeals this month, and on the way out the door they apparently had some things to get off their chest about a certain controversial Town Administrator.

Walpole Times reporter Brittney McNamara asked Case and Cunningham about the reasons behind their resignations, for what turned out to be an explosive front-page article in last week’s Times that was published, conveniently, just as town election season is picking up.

Long story short: both resignees said the finger should be pointed primarily at Town Administrator Michael Boynton for the ZBA’s, and Town Hall’s, massive unforgivable error in not scheduling a hearing on a proposed 40B project within the state-mandated 30 day time frame.

Among other claims, Cunningham and Case said that Boynton exercised too much “administrative control” over their Board, and “brought in his own attorney” (the town’s attorney) who “more or less runs the [ZBA] meetings.” Perhaps most importantly, they suggested that Boynton certainly should have known about the law requiring a hearing within 30 days – a charge that makes a lot of sense considering Boynton’s long tenure in town government and knowledge of state regulations.

It is well-known to most 180 readers that this blog is no fan of Boynton. But while some of Case’s and Cunningham’s specific concerns may (and do) have legitimacy, in the end the Times article resembled just a lot more of the blame game.

Yes, the buck stops at the top, with the Board of Selectmen and Town Administrator. Both entities failed in their oversight of Barberry Homes’ 40B application. And neither entity, perhaps tellingly, has been particularly vocal in opposition to the proposed project. Even if Boynton was as overly controlling of the ZBA as Case and Cunningham claim, it’s irrelevant to the more troubling fact that Boynton had knowledge of Barberry’s application when it was filed on Dec. 10, 2013, and did not raise a red flag when the hearing on it was not scheduled until Jan. 22. For this failure in oversight alone, he deserves criticism.

But neither Cunningham nor Case seemed to take much responsibility themselves for the ZBA’s own failures on Barberry Homes’ 40B application. There is plenty of blame to go around, and the ZBA members are not absolved of some of it. Putting aside the Town Administrator’s, Town Counsel’s, and Selectmen’s own lapses in oversight, the ZBA was on the front-line of Barberry Homes’ 40B application and should have scheduled a hearing within the required 30-day time frame. It’s as simple as that.

It’s also unclear why neither Case nor Cunningham, nor any other members, had the guts to stand up to the Town Administrator before now. Boynton might be a micromanaging control freak, but he could also have been kept in check by a ZBA that was more assertive and stood up for itself. Both members also claimed that the ZBA has lost influence in zoning issues over the years, such as site plan review, and suggested that Boynton had to do with that. But it’s not as if Boynton was personally responsible for changing the ZBA’s jurisdictions on certain matters against the members’ wishes – that is dictated only by state law and local bylaws. If ZBA members have a problem with their diminished power, they should bring that up at Town Meeting for bylaw changes.

It’s also fine for them to argue that Boynton seems to use Town Counsel for political ends, but the town’s standard practice is for all boards and committees to use Counsel only with the authority of the Town Administrator’s office. If past policy allowed the ZBA to have its own lawyer, it’s probably a good thing that policy was changed. Individual town boards shouldn’t be allowed to run around with their own attorneys, racking up legal costs and potentially pitting one board against another board each with their own attorney. Municipal law can get complicated and expensive, and it is a sensible policy to have all requests for legal services go through the Town Administrator’s office, and for that office to have at least some input into when and how the Counsel is used to ensure that all town boards are on the same team and that costs are being managed. A more valid argument might be for the ZBA members to argue that strictly the Selectmen – not the Town Administrator’s office – should control Town Counsel. This can be modified in the Selectmen’s policies and procedures.

But for those of us who have seen Boynton in action for all the years he has been in Walpole, the Times article really provide no new insights. Control and micromanagement is Boynton’s modus operandi – everyone at Town Hall, including Selectmen, are well aware that he has a hand in just about every operation in town government and sharply punishes those who dissent (at least those who he has the ability to punish). Selectmen have enabled this, when they should have instead been curbing it. It has been well-known for years that his style of governance has created a hostile work environment for most town employees and many committee members. Town Hall is not a happy place to work, and employee morale has been low for a long time. Selectmen, by their continued profuse praise of Boynton, have indicated that they don’t seem to care.

Boynton’s decision to allow ZBA secretary Evelyn Splaine to resign, instead of be terminated, in January is also common practice in his administration. He did that with a Finance Department employee who stole money from the town early last year, and did it again with the Animal Control Officer who had neglected animal care at the town’s animal shelter late last year. This practice of forced resignations instead of terminations allows Boynton to keep each departure under wraps, at least in theory (admittedly, this type of thing does happen in the private sector too, but they aren’t dealing with employees expected to uphold the public trust.) Were it not for some whistle-blowers at Town Hall, the reasons behind all three resignations likely would have been kept quiet to this day. Every resident should have a problem with that.

All of this about Boynton is interesting information, and old news, but it’s not clear that any of this has to do specifically with causing the 40B scheduling mistake.

Whether Boynton should follow Case and Cunningham’s lead in stepping down is up to Selectmen at this point. Selectmen have an obligation to protect the quality of life of citizens of Walpole, and their appointees on the ZBA and in the Town Administrator’s office are also supposed to work toward this mission. It’s pretty clear that some of these appointees made mistakes and their mistakes could cost the town a lot of money going forward. These mistakes wouldn’t necessarily require resignations, but Boynton has already set the standard by removing Splaine.

Selectmen should investigate why these mistakes occurred, and enact policies to ensure they don’t happen again. Are all board secretaries in town government well-informed about legal regulations under their board’s jurisdiction? To what extent are board members themselves being provided information about which laws they need to be aware of? What checks and balances are in place to ensure mistakes made by a low-level part-time board secretary are discovered before it is too late?

Meanwhile, a related issue that still has to be resolved by Selectmen is what should happen to ZBA Chairwoman Susanne Murphy, who was not publicly transparent about the fact that she is the first cousin of Barberry’s president, and despite that relationship refused to recuse herself from discussion on the application. At least one ZBA member interviewed by 180 said he, speaking for himself and no other members, had no idea that Murphy was even related to the developer until it appeared on a local blog, suggesting that she kept the information secret even from at least some of her own colleagues.

Murphy has not yet resigned from the ZBA, but she has bowed to public pressure and will not participate in any further discussion related to her cousin’s application. But that’s not good enough – Selectmen, as her appointing authority, have an obligation to call her on the carpet or demand her resignation. She simply was not open about a serious potential conflict of interest – a very solid grounds for the dismissal of any town board member. Murphy was also Splaine’s direct supervisor, and like Boynton, failed in her oversight duties.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Michael Servatius permalink
    March 27, 2014 5:55 PM

    Sam…I find your posts to be very enlightening. I thought you and your readers would be interested to know that there is some fallout from the controversies surrounding the ZBA that is affecting our rights as citizens. I currently have an outstanding appeal against the Building Inspector that has been scheduled to be heard before the ZBA since mid-February. This has been continued without testimony twice before this week due to the fact that the Board only had 4 members available for each session. I executed my right to continue each time until this could be heard by a 5 member board (if only 4 members, it requires a unanimous vote). We had another meeting scheduled for last night (again with only 4 members…including James Case who finishes 4/1) and now had to fight hard just to get them to agree to continue the hearing again. Although they agreed to continue one more time, we were informed by the Board that they plan to force us to have the meeting heard the next time even if they only have 4 members available. They explained that it was not our “right” to continue, it was a mere “courtesy”. Apparently, they do not intend to extend that “courtesy” any longer…at least not for us. As a taxpaying citizen of Walpole, I find it disgusting that we are now being bullied by the town to have this case heard at a clear disadvantage to us due to circumstances that are beyond our control!

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