Friday, March 1, 2013

Mansfield Boards Feud Helps No One

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Friday, March 1, 2013


By Bill Gouveia

The recent political battle between the Mansfield Board of Selectmen and the Conservation Commission they appoint should have been waged on one the town’s playgrounds rather than within the walls of town hall. At least then all the silliness put on display would have a more appropriate backdrop.

Mansfield selectmen were unhappy with their Conservation Commission’s performance. Specifically, they were angered by the commission’s use of outside counsel to advise them on a specific issue, as well as whether or not proper procedure was followed in instituting regulations. They instructed town counsel – which really is a misnomer, since in most towns that attorney works for and under the guidance of the selectmen – to “investigate”.

Counsel did as his selectmen requested, and selectmen made sure they had much public discussion about the report. They apparently wanted the commission members to come to the selectmen’s meeting and have a discussion about the selectmen’s concerns. There is confusion and debate over whether or not the members were actually invited to gathering, but the situation quickly deteriorated from there.

Selectmen also responded to complaints they claim to have received from residents and others who have appeared before the conservation commission. According to selectmen chairman Olivier Kozlowski, many of these complaints involve allegedly unfair or rude treatment and were anonymous. Kozlowski and his board felt compelled to address these complaints in a very public fashion despite their mostly anonymous nature. Kozlowski wrote that his board “will continue to monitor this situation.”

Well, good for them.

It is difficult to judge the validity of anonymous complaints against public officials. Unless they involve serious crimes or misconduct (and none has been alleged in this mess) they need to be documented by those who make them in order to be taken seriously. As Kozlowski himself noted, they usually stem from those who did not get what they wanted from some public board or official.

That does not mean they should not be taken seriously. And there is nothing wrong with passing them along to the official or committee in question. But if you are going to accuse a board or individual members of such behavior, you have an obligation to give them specific examples and allow them to know just who is doing the accusing.

Some selectmen were extremely upset the Con Com members did not show up to be questioned. “Why don’t they come in here so we can look at them face to face and have these discussions?” asked selectmen Jess Aptowitz. Before the meeting was over, selectmen had voted 5-0 to suggest the commission go over the regulations in question with town counsel and the town manager in hopes of correcting any problems.

Which raises the pretty obvious question: Why didn’t selectmen just do that in the first place?

Could it have been because they wanted to try and pressure and influence the committee members they appoint? Why couldn’t this have been worked out in a professional manner between the town manager, the conservation agent, and the two chairmen? How does it serve the public interest to have two bickering boards blasting each other in the newspapers and on cable TV?

The saddest part of this story is that commission member Michele White was caught in the crossfire. She was recently not reappointed when her term ended, clearly and unquestionably a victim of local politics. Chairman Kozlowski said of her non-appointment: “Under the circumstances, a majority of the board felt that sending two new faces to the seven-member board, both of whom were present when we discussed these issues with the commission, would have a greater impact.”

This seems to say Ms. White was knocked off the board not based upon her qualifications, but rather by the desire of selectmen to have the conservation commission run the way selectmen want it run. That is a very shoddy way to handle appointments, and discourages good people from stepping forward and offering their services to the town.

The conservation commission may well have made mistakes. Selectmen are right to want to make sure any mistakes are corrected. But when they do it in a way designed to shine the spotlight on themselves, they do neither themselves nor their constituents much good.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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