Select Board roundup: Members debate potential changes to policies following public comment controversy

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At Tuesday night’s meeting the Select Board discussed possible changes or clarifications to its policies, most notably the public comment portion.

The issue rose to the forefront in August, when Select Board chair Brendan Tedstone allowed four people to deliver anonymous criticism of Planning Board member Muriel Kramer and call for her to resign.

Some members of the board expressed concern at the time, noting that the board — and other town boards, as well as Town Meeting — consistently asks for the name and address of anyone providing public comment.

A resident later filed a complaint with the state Attorney General’s Office over the issue, but town counsel Ray Miyares told the board that there was no violation, as there is no requirement that an individual be identified, and the chair has the authority to determine who may participate.

However, the board elected to revisit its policy to determine if any changes were warranted.

Select Board member Brian Herr said he felt the issue was related to the pandemic and holding the meetings via Zoom.

“I just don’t think now’s the time to make the change to a policy that works in a normal meeting,” he said, adding: “I don’t think we should be hitting the panic button because we’ve had some rough meetings during the COVID situation and what we’ve put up with here. … I don’t think we should try to manipulate rules and regulations that have worked well for a long time.”

Tedstone, like Herr an independent, supported that idea.

“I like the thought of Mr. Herr of having us drop the anchor and slow it down a little bit and not jump off the cliff because of a couple of months of insanity,” he said. “And all of this really has been insanity on both sides of the fence. There’s no two ways about it. So I think that we certainly can take a look at it, but I think cooler heads need to prevail and we have to look at this as a policy that we’re going to be utilizing going forward post-COVID.”

Mary Jo LaFreniere, who was vocal in her defense of Kramer and her opposition to the anonymity, said blaming the situation on COVID isn’t completely fair.

“The only thing that was related to COVID was that we were doing it by phone so often and not in person,” said LaFreniere, one of three Democrats on the five-person board. “Our history has been in person you give your name and address and why you’re here and who you’re representing. And we do the same thing at Town Meeting. And all of a sudden we’re on the phone and people don’t have to say who they are. And tonight they did, tonight you requested who they were. So I think from now on that should be part of it.”

LaFreniere also said the matter should have been discussed in executive session due to another town official being targeted.

“When they mentioned the name we should have stopped it then and there,” she said.

Tedstone said he was considering suspending public comment altogether, but he was discouraged by town counsel and the town manager from doing so.

He added that the commenters actually were not anonymous, because their identities were included in the Select Board meeting packet, which anyone can access.

“As the chair right now I can tell you had I known how much backlash and repercussion and angst that this has caused for not just the people that wrote the letters but for the board members and the amount of division and angst that it has created, I never would have allowed that,” he said. “And I want it to be known, the majority of the people didn’t say that they didn’t want them read. I’m not going to go back and rehash it, but it’s not like it was a 4-1 vote that we don’t read them and they were read. It was not like that at all. But it is what it is. I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, because I’m going to be misquoted on many, many Facebook groups, I’m sure, in the next hour or so. So I will move on.”

Tedstone said he allowed the anonymity because the commenters were making reference to criminals who had received assistance from the Massachusetts Bail Fund — for which Kramer serves as treasurer — and he had concerns for their safety. Board member Irfan Nasrullah said he understands that point of view.

“The chair has always asked for the name and address,” he said. “And I think there was an extenuating circumstance for why he said that we wouldn’t have to ask for it. In my mind I think that we make decisions, and maybe we regret the decision later, but it wasn’t just a haphazard decision that he made. It was well thought out. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong, but it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. He put some thought into it. … In the interest of unity I think we need to understand that there are extenuating circumstances at times, and he made a call. So I think that’s OK.”

The discussion was to be continued at a later date.

Town recognizes retirees Harris, McKay

The Select Board honored Lt. Carl Harris, who retired from the Fire Department on Oct. 1. He had been with the town for 31 years, 26 as a full-time firefighter after five years as a call firefighter.

Brendan Tedstone said he started as a call firefighter the same day as Harris.

“Carl has my admiration as a firefighter, as a colleague, as a person and as a friend,” Tedstone said. “Carl has given back to the town of Hopkinton more than anybody with the exception of Chief [Steve] Slaman on this call knows. … You have earned my respect. You’re a great man. For the town it’s a tremendous loss.” …

The board also recognized assistant town accountant Janet McKay, who is retiring Oct. 31 after 24 years with the town.

McKay originally was hired as an interdepartmental secretary before becoming the assistant town accountant.

“I am so proud to have worked with Janet over the last 12 years,” said town manager Norman Khumalo. “She was a very able representative of what we call excellence in public service.”

Added Tedstone: “The town is losing a wealth of knowledge and a heck of a person as an employee. … Your work means a lot to us.”

Hopkinton awaits Main Street bid winner

Khumalo said the town continues to wait for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to announce the winner of the bid for the Main Street Corridor Project. The contract is expected to be awarded in early November, at which point a pre-construction kickoff meeting will be scheduled by MassDOT.

Regarding projects in the pipeline, the Permanent Building Committee is expected to soon issue its report on the reuse of Center School. Meanwhile, an application will be submitted to the Community Preservation Committee for the preservation and restoration of the windows on the 1928 portion of the school.

A preliminary feasibility study on the proposed public safety facility is nearing completion.

Khumalo also asked for an exemption to the town hiring freeze in order to hire a new assistant town accountant, and the board approved the request.

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3 COMMENTS

    • I second that sentiment! Also a big thank you to Amy Ritterbusch for all the comments she made during this meeting that didn’t make this article! Thank you Amy for all the work that you do on our behalf! Awesome job to all the people on the board who work so hard on our behalf!

  1. Thanks to Amy Ritterbusch for her well-developed proposal with regard to the public comment section. Mary Jo LaFreniere’s stance on the matter is also appreciated.

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