WVN #289: Selectmen clash over "infamous" SOS meeting
- Dear Wayland Voter,
It might have been the angriest clash between Wayland selectmen in recent memory.
Selectman Doug Leard set off the dispute at the end of the March 9 Board of Selectmen meeting, reading a statement questioning the appearance of Chairman Michael Tichnor and other town officials at what he called "the infamous Feb. 24 SOS meeting."
"Was that a legal meeting?" he asked. "Was it appropriate?"
That led to more than 20 minutes of heated back-and-forth as Leard stood his ground against assaults from his four colleagues over the closed, unadvertised meeting of the political activist group at the home of SOSWayland leader Lisa Valone.
(There is no indication that it was illegal.)
At the end a furious Tichnor said loudly, "If you choose to call me a liar, so be it."
"I never called you a liar." Leard replied.
Leard had said he was never informed of the meeting, and cited the Massachusetts Municipal Association guideline for selectmen that boards operate as a collective body, requiring authorization when one member acts independently.
Public officials are elected or appointed to "serve the entire population," Leard said, "not just a select few."
"I have no problem with SOS," Leard said later, noting that it had supported him in the past. He isn't seeking re-election this year.
Tichnor said he was invited as an individual and had no part in planning the meeting or setting the agenda. Furthermore, he said, he wasn't representing the board and no decisions were taken.
Others at the Tuesday morning meeting included School Superintendent Gary Burton, Town Administrator Fred Turkington and members of the Planning Board, School Committee, Finance Committee and High School Building Committee.
Leard wondered whether members of other boards and committees hadn't been told about the meeting. And he noted that the meeting invitation listed topics of continuing interest to SOS such as the Town Center and plans for a new or renovated high school but nothing about protection for "our aging population."
Leard, who has advocated for the elderly and for emergency services, quoted statistics indicating that nearly a quarter of Wayland residents are over 60 years old.
Other selectmen defended Tichnor, comparing his appearance before the political group to being invited to a ribbon-cutting at a day-care center or a meeting of the Boy Scouts or a garden club.
One distinction, of course, is that SOS registers as a political action organization and has no purpose other than political persuasion.
Of the controversy Selectman Bill Whitney said: "A non-issue." Selectman Steve Correia: "I would have been thrilled to go." Selectman Joe Nolan: "I think frankly it's politics."
Unquestionably politics is involved. Email invitations to the private meeting were leaked to some WVN readers and to Alan Reiss, who is running to regain the Board of Selectmen seat he lost last year.
When Reiss asked Valone if he could attend, she told him there was room only for active SOS members. SOS ignored Reiss' suggestion to hold the meeting in a larger room, such as the large hearing room at the town building.
When Reiss wrote to the selectmen to request an equivalent but open meeting before the April election, Town Administrator Turkington failed to pass the email to the Board until Reiss repeated the request.
The request didn't reach the selectmen until Monday night. Just before Leard read his statement, the four other selectmen agreed that a "state of the town" meeting similar to one held in the past was a good idea, but not now. It should be held in the fall, Tichnor said, to keep it "non-political."
During the discussion later, Nolan said SOS has a record of success on behalf of candidates and issues. "Alan as a candidate realized that the best way to campaign is to attack SOS," Nolan said.
SOS hasn't publicly questioned decisions by the selectmen or the School Committee and has consistently supported property tax overrides (there have been five in the past seven years), and the Finance Committee recently referred to 2010 as "an override year"). Reiss has opposed recent overrides and called for more stringent budgeting.
When Leard told his colleagues that the public perception of the SOS meeting is important, Tichnor interrupted to say that the public sees the controversy as "outright, naked grandstanding" for political reasons.
"This isn't just me talking," Leard said, adding that constituents had brought their concern over the closed meeting to him. "What is the public to think?"
He recommended holding a public pre-election meeting along the lines of Reiss' suggestion. Tichnor rejected the idea, saying a meeting at this time, on "the eve of the election," would be "tainted by politics."
For a controversy that some consider a non-issue, the meeting has generated a lot of attention. When the Wayland Town Crier published a mild editorial recommending that a public meeting be scheduled to provide all voters with the same opportunities as SOS members, Planning Board Chairman Bill Steinberg (who had been at the meeting) responded with a letter that was much longer than the editorial itself, accusing the Crier of fomenting divisiveness.
"I believe the controversy the Town Crier is perpetuating in the recent editorial is an example of a divisive editorial policy that is indifferent to the best interests of the community," Steinberg wrote.
After a WVN contributor was turned away from the Feb. 24 meeting. WVN asked Valone if the meeting had been taped so that others could hear what officials had to say. She said there was no videotape.
"I suggest that you speak directly with town officials to set up a similar meeting for yourself or for a group of folks or attend the various budget forums and debt exclusion hearings that are coming up in the next few weeks," Valone went on.
"As you know, our town officials are very generous with their time to speak and meet with residents about the issues facing Wayland."
Thus the public doesn't know what happened at the meeting. There is apparently no way to verify or disprove any suspicions that it involved political strategy or tactics.
The chairman of the Planning Board blames the local newspaper for the controversy. Some selectmen blame a candidate. Voters are left to sort it out for themselves.
On Thursday the selectmen canceled a scheduled March 16 meeting and will meet next on March 23.
-- Michael Short
To see the entire exchange at the Monday meeting, you can watch rebroadcasts on WayCAM (see the Crier or www.wayland.ma.us for schedules). Candidate Reiss has posted the material in four YouTube segments:
WereYouInvited2 - Part 1
WereYouInvited2 - Part 2
WereYouInvited2 - Part 3
WereYouInvited2 - Part 4
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Wayland Voters Network
Michael Short, Editor