STONEHAM - In one of the most rancorous confrontations in recent memory, Select Board members last week accused each other of using citizens as pawns in ugly attempts to either silence dissent or sabotage the reputation of town leaders.
During a meeting last Thursday night in Town Hall, senior Select Board member Caroline Colarusso again butted heads with her colleagues over a proposal to switch the timing of "public comment" time to the end of each meeting.
Just as was the case earlier this month, when Select Board member George Seibold first introduced the straight-forward request to rearrange the placement of the regularly-occurring agenda item, tempers quickly flared during exchanges over the idea.
Ultimately, the elected officials took no formal action regarding Seibold's proposal, and by the time Select Board member Raymie Parker called for an end to the hostilities, the feuding town officials appeared no closer to settling their differences.
"I'm really upset that these meetings have taken these turns. I think it's unprofessional, and I don't think it's what the people elected us to do," said a clearly embarrassed Parker, who admonished the board for letting things get out of hand.
During the most recent discussion, Town Counsel Robert Galvin appeared before the Select Board in an attempt to clarify legal questions around public comment protocols, which Colarusso earlier this month described as "unconstitutional".
However, the conversation quickly went off the rails after Seibold, referencing his entire rationale for changing the timing of public comment, accused Colarusso of using the setting as a way to attack her political opponents and spread "mistruths".
In Sept. of 2017, Seibold actually led the efforts to set aside time at each meeting for citizens to freely address the board. In doing so, the Select Board member, then serving as chairman, faced significant pushback from other town officials — including Colarusso — who worried about the forum being used as a way to attack political enemies and slander municipal officials.
According to Seibold, though he still considers the agenda item to be a wonderful tool for aggrieved citizens to rely upon as a matter of last resort, Colarusso has regularly abused the platform in order to embarrass critics and advance her own agenda.
"It's almost like we're taking a toy away from a child who's abusing it," said Seibold of Colarusso and her reaction to his proposal to move the agenda item to the end of each meeting. "You regularly stage public comment with prepared statements given by your allies in an attempt to derail a meeting from the start."
"This isn't about free speech and letting residents complain about issues. It's about you hijacking a legitimate forum with political gimmicks in an attempt to weaken the town and this board," he later vented. "I want to sit here and lead by example, not have meetings turning into a clown show."
Retaliating in-kind with her own series of allegations, Colarusso, besides insinuating that Seibold had inappropriate business relationships with town contractors, insisted the agenda item was really being advanced because town officials didn't like their neglect and mistreatment of town citizens being exposed.
"I don't put up fences for contractors who are working for the town. I have no skin in the game. Believe me, I can go there, George," Colarusso shot back. "If you don't like what people are saying during public comment, which is the real reason it's going away, then make the town more responsive towards its citizens. Help people like Jessica Eaton, who called the town for six months with no response."
Select Board Chair Shelly MacNeill, who was accused of being a bully by Colarusso earlier this month, later defended Seibold's criticism as valid. According to MacNeill, she was virtually certain that a handful of citizens, who have addressed the board during pubic participation time in recent years, have done so at Colarusso's direction.
The chairperson further claimed that on several of those occasions, rather than helping those citizen's navigate through some bureaucratic red-tape and find a resolution to their problem, she has instead encouraged those town residents to take their complaints public.
"When people contact me as a Select Board member with an issue, I ask them what they've done and who they've called. I then call the town administrator and work with him to get that issue resolved," MacNeill said.
"That's the way it's supposed to be done. You don't encourage people to come to public comment to embarrass or put to shame public employees…You talk about promoting the town and getting people to move to Stoneham, that's not the way to do it," she charged.
Clearly irked by those characterizations, Colarusso flatly denied ever encouraging a town resident — whose issues could have otherwise been fixed through a few phone calls — to approach the Select Board to disparage a Town Hall manager or worker.
She later insisted that in instances where she has been contacted by constituents, she's tried to find a resolution to their complaints, but has commonly hit the same obstacles and roadblocks.
Colarusso later made no quips about the fact that she has later demanded offending managers be held accountable for ignoring or mistreating constituents. Rather than rushing to the defense of those workers or complaining they were never contacted about the described citizen complaint, Colarusso suggested her colleagues instead express more concerns about resolving the underlying problem.
"You accuse me of conspiring. That's wrong. You shouldn't accuse somebody of doing something unless you have proof. It's wrong, and it's un-American," Colarusso responded. "Isn't this about [the citizens who can't get any help?] How is this about you people? I tried to help [someone] and was unsuccessful."