Politics of change

Stoneham's voters could drastically change the political landscape in the community this spring.

Stoneham's voters could drastically change the political landscape in the community this spring by enacting a trio of Town Meeting initiatives aimed at establishing term limits, blocking municipal workers from holding some public offices, and allowing citizens to recall any elected official.

In recent months, each of the warrant articles has generated spirited debate amongst the town's Select Board, which would be the only government body subjected to both the proposed six-year term limit and the workplace restrictions.

Earlier this winter, town officials, noting the warrant articles are being sponsored by private citizens, declined to take a position on all but the proposal to prohibit active town employees from also serving on the Select Board.

Advising citizens to nix that proposal, the Select Board characterized the ban as a personal attack on colleague Raymie Parker, who works for Stoneham's Police Department. Opponents of the proposal also charge that the bylaw would unfairly and perhaps illegally constitute a discriminatory ban on a protected class of citizens.

The recall petition, also the cause of some controversy, will reportedly be reworked in the coming weeks to include higher thresholds for removing public officials from elected boards. Though not yet officially endorsed by town leaders, the recall referendum bylaw enjoys broad support from most Select Board members.

Each of the three proposals seeks to amend Stoneham's Town Code, which would require a two-thirds majority in order to pass at the annual spring assembly. Each of the measures would also likely require the approval of the state Legislature.

Recall petition

In March, Parker, then the junior member of the Select Board, told her peers that she authored the recall referendum bylaw as a private citizen to empower citizens with the right to yank public officials from office prematurely.

According to the Select Board member, she began exploring the issue after reflecting on a policy discussion a year earlier in regards to a town sexual harassment policy. She later became convinced the recall regulations were needed in town after political scandals rocked the Massachusetts communities of Rockland, Saugus, and Fall River.

In Rockland, eight-year Board of Selectmen veteran Edward Kimball resigned from his office last summer after allegations emerged that he lied about his involvement a Town Hall sex scandal.

More recently, Fall River Mayor Jasiel Correia was recalled by citizens of the community — and in a bizarre twist swept right back into office as a replacement candidate — after he was indicted by federal authorities last fall on tax and wire fraud charges.

In light of what has gone on in Rockland, Saugus, and now in Fall River, [I realized] the Town of Stoneham does not have a recall mechanism in place. “You as residents have no way to call us to the mat," explained Parker at a Town Hall meeting in early March.

In its original form, the bylaw would enable private citizens to initiate the recall process by gathering 100 signatures from registered voters. Before a recall referendum went to the ballot, at least 10 percent of all registered voters — or roughly 1,500 citizens — would have to sign on in support of convening a special election.

Any elected official in Stoneham could be subjected to a recall, as long as they were at least six months into their term.

Vehemently opposed to the recall regulations, Select Board member Caroline Colarusso, espousing the belief that she was the target of Parker's proposal, has argued the thresholds for launching a recall will be quickly seized upon by those seeking to remove political enemies.

Predicting Stoneham would become paralyzed by an endless cycle of retaliatory recall elections, Colarusso and Select Board member Anthony Wilson also insisted the legislation should include some type of due cause provision. Without that stipulation, according to Colarusso, local officials could be ousted out-of-office based on wild rumors and innuendos without a fair opportunity to defend themselves.

"You're kind of opening the door to a lot of political playfulness for people who don't want someone in office…I could get 1,000 signature down at Stop & Shop this weekend. Most people probably wouldn't even ask what they're signing," said Colarusso. "Innocent until proven guilty. That's the way I believe in due process."

In a compromise meant to allay fears about politically-motivated reprisals, Parker has since announced her intent to modify the initiative by increasing the voting thresholds needed to trigger proposed recall elections. Parker now wants to hike the initial standard to 300 signatures, while under the second phase of the process, she proposes increasing the threshold to 20 percent of the electorate.

Term limits

Apparently catching wind of Parker's efforts to place the recall initiative on the Town Meeting agenda, Colarusso introduced a competing measure to impose new term limits and shorten the election cycle for Select Board members.

"We just had a lengthy discussion about not wanting to have someone stuck in office for three years, if there's been some egregious activity going on. This warrant, I think, solves that problem," she said, when introducing the proposal. "It also sets term limits for members of the Select Board, so they can only remain [in office] for six years, or three, two-year terms."

Colarusso, the Select Board's senior member, contends her article is a better alternative to recalls, because it eliminates the possibility that an elected official can be removed from office due to unfounded allegations or politically-motivated witch hunts.

She believes that by setting a two-year term, voters will be assured that an unwanted Select Board member — even if refusing to resign in the face of a scandal — can be swiftly replaced at a future municipal election.

However, other town officials have suggested the initiative, in shortening the election cycle, might stifle Select Board members' ability to concentrate on town business, because they'll be constantly campaigning for reelection.

"I'm a fan of term limits, so I like that side of it. I wish it was separated," said Select Board member Anthony Wilson during a Town Hall meeting in March. "I feel like you spend your first year doing this learning and making mistakes. By your second year, you're just getting your feet underneath you. So I think three years is the right fit."

Critics of the proposal have also argued long-term office holders, rather than being a detriment to the community, are able to effectively shape policy by gaining a comprehensive understanding of Stoneham's inner workings.

Workplace restrictions

Labeling the warrant article as a direct attack upon Parker, the Select Board immediately recommended unfavorable action on the last proposal to block town workers from sitting on what is arguably Stoneham's most prominent government body.

Late last month, private citizen Christopher Whitney, who sponsored the initiative, refuted those allegations.

According to Whitney, rather than attacking the continued tenure of Parker, who topped the ticket in a four-way race for the Select Board in the spring of 2018, he introduced the measure in response to the state Legislature's vote last December to give itself an approximate 6 percent pay hike.

Telling the town officials he was disgusted by that action, especially since both members of Stoneham's legislative delegation had just been reelected a month earlier, Whitney said the bylaw intends to eliminate situations where Select Board members could utilize their station to influence their own compensation packages.

Specifically, Whitney is concerned about the Select Board's role in setting the salary of the town administrator. The Town Hall CEO, who in addition to supervising most Town Hall workers, also delivers the community's draft operating budget each year and serves as Stoneham's chief negotiating officer during contract talks with department managers and union personnel.

"To me, it accomplishes a couple of things. It protects the Select Board and the town administrator from what could be construed as a conflict-of-interest with budgets and salaries that have to be decided and voted upon," the Bellevue Road resident said.

Despite that clarification, town officials remain staunchly opposed to the Town Meeting proposal. According to Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill, the state's existing conflict-of-interest and ethics laws adequately shield the community from the types of abuses feared by Whitney. She also suggested that given Stoneham's history, when a variety of privately-employed officials have been forced to recuse themselves on matters due to potential conflicts-of-interest, there is scant evidence that a municipal worker is more compromised than any other person.

"Even people who don't work for the town have conflicts. We've had people who've had to recuse themselves who weren't employees, and they've had to [refrain from taking important votes] more than anyone else," she said. "So I don't know that you can avoid [having representatives] with a potential conflict. What's important is that we follow the law and disclose [those circumstances]."

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