Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell

Moving and shaking in Swampscott

There isn’t much waterfront activity in Swampscott during the winter but the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee is starting 2017 as a very active governmental body.

Its benign-sounding name is a contrast to the controversy swirling around the committee, beginning with the Board of Selectmen’s decision to not reappoint Mary Ellen Fletcher to the committee.

The five selectmen split over a proposal to expand the committee by adding new members without reappointing Fletcher. Board members cited a potential conflict of interest between Fletcher’s town Finance Committee service and Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee membership.

Fletcher took the decision to yank her off the waterfront committee with measured distaste, labeling the move “politics.” Her veiled accusation probably, on closer analysis, holds as much water as the conflict of interest accusation directed at her by the board.

The same can be said of comments made by Fletcher’s fellow committee member, Glenn Kessler, who used words like “retribution” and “political payback” to describe Fletcher’s removal from the committee.

Accusing the selectmen of “payback” assumes the elected officials had revenge in mind when they did not reappoint Fletcher.

‘Political payback’ in Swampscott?

She joined Kessler last fall in questioning town spending related to proposed harbor dredging and breakwater projects. To be clear, no charges of financial mismanagement were leveled and the dredging and breakwater work never got done.

But raising concerns about potential conflicts of interest doesn’t hold much water, as Selectman Patrick Jones pointed out, unless Fletcher demonstrated a history of conflict.

It is interesting to note Jones and Donald Hause, the board’s freshmen, split on the vote to take Fletcher off the committee. Before the board voted unanimously to expand the committee from seven to nine members, Hause voted to not reappoint Fletcher and Jones voted to retain her.

The board added irony to disenchantment when it voted, in a separate measure, to reappoint Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell with the title of “ex-officio.” The move is apparently a formality to provide the town with a harbormaster in name only while officials conduct a search for an interim harbormaster to replace Bithell who is on paid administrative leave and facing criminal charges for using an expired license plate.

Fletcher and Kessler warned the decision to not reappoint her might deter other civic-minded citizens from volunteering to serve on town committees. The selectmen all but debunked that claim with their decision to expand the harbor and waterfront committee by drawing on a pool of volunteers willing and able to serve on the committee.

Who knows how the charge-countercharge episode will shape town politics in the year ahead. But if a debate over committee membership can ignite accusations, just imagine what other storms are brewing on the town’s political horizon.

‘Political payback’ in Swampscott?


SWAMPSCOTT — Mary Ellen Fletcher was the only sitting member not reappointed to the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee by the Board of Selectmen recently. The board said it was nothing personal, but she claims it is backlash from her questioning how town funds were spent for two waterfront projects.

“I saw it coming the day after the editorial in the Lynn Item came out,” Fletcher said, referring to an October editorial after she and two other harbor and waterfront advisory committee members brought up the waterfront projects’ spending. “I knew that this was going to happen. I didn’t know it for a fact. It was my gut feeling. The rumor out there was that it made the selectmen look bad.”

Fletcher, along with two other harbor and waterfront advisory committee members, Milton Fistel and Glenn Kessler, appeared before the selectmen last October to present two instances of how the town overspent on waterfront projects, harbor dredging and a proposed breakwater that haven’t moved past the study stage.

“I can’t help but think there was retribution,” said Kessler. “I just got the feeling this was political payback.”

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Kessler spoke in favor of Fletcher at last week’s board meeting, asking the selectmen to reconsider their decision not to reappoint her, calling her a conscientious person, hard worker and a real asset. Fletcher said she received a phone call about the decision from Naomi Dreeben, board chairwoman, the night before the meeting.

At last week’s board meeting, Peter Spellios, a selectman, proposed two courses of action related to the harbor and waterfront advisory committee. He suggested increasing membership from seven to nine members, which was approved unanimously.

Spellios also proposed reappointing six of the incumbents, not reappointing Fletcher and adding three new members. That recommendation was also approved, but split the board 3 to 2, with Laura Spathanas, vice-chair, and Patrick Jones voting against it.

Dreeben, Spellios and Donald Hause voted in favor, citing a potential conflict of interest as Fletcher started serving on the finance committee last spring. They said there could be a potential conflict if financial matters relating to the harbor and waterfront advisory committee came before the finance committee.

“I would support not reappointing her,” said Hause. “I want to stress that’s not personal or an indictment on her capabilities whatsoever.”

The three new members are Mark Wolinsky, Ulf Westhoven and Ryan Patz. The members reappointed were Jackson Schultz, Mounzer Aylouche, Fistel, Kessler, Jacqueline Kinney and Neil Rossman.

Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell, who is on paid administrative leave and is facing criminal charges for use of of an expired license plate, was also reappointed as ex-officio. Interim Town Administrator Gino Cresta and the selectmen are actively looking for an interim harbormaster to replace Bithell.

Spathanas and Jones argued that Fletcher could recuse herself from any finance committee vote pertaining to financial matters with the harbor advisory committee. Jones said he might be more convinced if there was a history of the conflict happening.

“I’m not convinced there yet with this particular person because of the due diligence they do provide,” Jones said. “It’s someone who does put in a lot of time with things.”

Spathanas questioned why the selectmen would take away something Fletcher is passionate about, by taking her off the advisory committee. Despite those arguments, Dreeben said she was still concerned about a conflict of interest, but recognizes Fletcher’s value as a volunteer. The decision had nothing to do with the substance of the person, Spellios added.

“Mary Ellen Fletcher is knowledgeable and well-informed on issues,” Dreeben said when asked if the lack of reappointment was a political move related to the town spending questions. “We greatly value her work on the finance committee.”

Fletcher said the conflict argument didn’t make sense to her. She said if there was a finance committee vote pertaining the harbor advisory committee, it would be a no-brainer that she would recuse herself. The harbor committee also has no fiduciary responsibility, and simply acts as an advisory to the board of selectmen, she added.

“This is just politics,” Fletcher said. “This is not life or death or that serious. It’s just disappointing, that’s all. I have every intention of continuing to be a good volunteer in my community … I don’t think their judgment was in the best interest of the community. It’s just so crazy. If they thought there was any issue of conflict, why did it take them seven months to bring it up?”

Fletcher and Kessler said the incident may deter others from volunteering.

“To reappoint six of us and to not reappoint her, I thought that was both rude and disrespectful,” said Kessler. “You’re really doing a disservice not only to Ms. Fletcher but to the town … I have to say that just leaves a sour taste in my mouth.”

Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Clear sailing for new Swampscott harbormaster


SWAMPSCOTT — The search for an interim harbormaster has hit another roadblock.

The Board of Selectmen was set to vote on an interim harbormaster at their Jan. 4 meeting, but the matter has been pushed until their Jan. 18 agenda.

“I had one candidate that I was ready to recommend to the board of selectmen and he called me this morning, and told me he had a change of heart and that he would not be accepting the position,” said Gino Cresta, interim town administrator and department of public works director, on Thursday. “So, back to square one. I’m hoping to have somebody to recommend to the board of selectmen for the meeting on the 18th.”

Cresta said the yearly stipend for the harbormaster position is $7,500.

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Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell remains on paid administrative leave. He was arraigned in Lynn District Court in October on criminal charges for his use of an expired license plate.

Bithell last appeared in court for a pretrial hearing Dec. 12, which was continued until Jan. 23, according to the Essex County District Attorney’s office.

Cresta and Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the board of selectmen, said Bithell remains on administrative leave because waterfront towns are required by state law to officially have a harbormaster in place. Dreeben said he’ll be taken off leave when an interim harbormaster is selected.

Bithell is facing charges of attaching or concealing a registration plate, use of an uninsured trailer and use of an unregistered trailer. He was also issued a citation for misuse of an official number plate.

Dreeben said a permanent harbormaster will be appointed within the next year. For both the interim and permanent position, she said town officials are looking for someone who has boating experience, is responsible, fair, organized, has good interpersonal skills and is able to help people down at the waterfront.  

Bithell’s charges stem from an Aug. 15 complaint received by police about the misuse of a registration plate, assigned to a town-owned gray 2007 Load Rite utility trailer, according to a police report from Lynn District Court.

Photographs from June and August showed the same plate affixed to two different trailers, a Highlander brand pulled by Bithell’s truck and a ShoreLand’r trailer carrying a small power boat.

Bithell told police the ShoreLand’r trailer belonged to Assistant Harbormaster Mounzer Aylouche. He told police he used Aylouche’s trailer to move his boat in August without his knowledge, according to the police report.

Police located the town-owned trailer, along with an additional town-owned trailer, at Ryan Marine Services on Lincoln Avenue. Both were without plates. The owner of Ryan Marine said it was brought there inadvertently. Bithell was unaware it had been moved from the yard at the town of Swampscott water tower. The plate, which Bithell told police was located in the back of his truck, was returned to Town Hall, according to the police report.

Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Job fair in Swampscott: town administrator, harbormaster

By Gayla Cawley

SWAMPSCOTT — Department of Public Works Director Gino Cresta will be filling in during the search for a permanent town administrator.  

Cresta was named the interim town administrator at the Board of Selectmen meeting on Tuesday. He has worked for the town for more than 13 years.

“I’m both humbled and honored that I was chosen,” Cresta said. “I took it as one of the highest compliments that I was even under consideration.”

Town Administrator Thomas Younger accepted the same position in Stoneham last month. His last day in Swampscott falls in mid-October, with Cresta stepping up after his departure.

Naomi Dreeben, board chairwoman, said Town Accountant David Castellarin, who also serves as assistant town administrator, will exercise leadership on the budget during the interim tenure.

Selectman Peter Spellios said Cresta has dabbled in many of the ongoing initiatives and projects in town, which includes the appropriate disposal of vacant town buildings, as part of his position as DPW director. He said Cresta has defined his role as something well beyond what a DPW director is in many communities.

“In Gino, specifically, we have someone who has demonstrated a work ethic and a commitment to this town that is tremendous,” he said.

Cresta said he looks forward to continuing the process going forward with the ongoing town projects and working with the selectmen. He will continue his work on projects such as the implementation of artificial turf at Blocksidge Field and the Humphrey Street redesign.

The board also unanimously approved the drafted job description and posting for the town administrator position. The job will be posted within the week and applications will be due three weeks from then. Appointments to the screening committee, which will be selecting the finalists for the position, will be finalized by the end of the month. By Nov. 2, the screening committee is expected to inform the selectmen of their top candidates. Two weeks later, the board will vote on a town administrator, with a start date expected in mid-January.

Discussion and a possible vote on an interim harbormaster was also listed on the agenda for the board meeting, but was not mentioned. Dreeben said in a phone interview earlier on Tuesday that a candidate has not been decided on.

Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell has been placed on leave and Younger has told selectmen that he will not recommend Bithell’s reappointment.

Bithell’s attorney, Neil Rossman, said previously that his client is scheduled to appear at a Sept. 19 clerk magistrate’s hearing to determine if criminal charges should be filed for use of an expired license plate. He said the complaint is regarding a boat trailer.  

Assistant Harbormaster Mounzer Aylouche has already turned down the interim position, citing time constraints.

Gayla Cawley can be reached at gcawley@itemlive.com. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.

Swampscott Harbormaster in hot water

By Thor Jourgensen

SWAMPSCOTT — A storm is brewing around town Harbormaster Lawrence Bithell with a District Court appearance pending and a push by Town Administrator Thomas Younger to not have Bithell reappointed to his job.

Bithell’s attorney, Neil Rossman, said Bithell is scheduled to appear at a Sept. 19 clerk magistrate’s hearing to determine if criminal charges should be filed for use of an expired license plate. Rossman, a town resident, declined to elaborate on the charge except to say, “It is a complaint regarding a boat trailer.”

Younger on Friday said he has informed the Board of Selectmen that he will not recommend Bithell’s reappointment as harbormaster. He said he will ask the board to name assistant harbormaster Mounzer Aylouche as interim harbormaster.

“I think we should go in a different direction,” Younger said.

Younger would not elaborate on why he will recommend against Bithell’s reappointment. But Rossman said Bithell has worked for the town more than 20 years and enjoys tenure status as harbormaster.

“His job is secure. He is not subject to reappointment,” he said.

Asked about the tenure claim and Bithell’s upcoming court appearance, Younger replied, “I don’t have any additional comment on this personnel matter.”

Rossman said Younger has given Bithell no reason for why he will not recommend reappointment and “hasn’t preferred any charges against him.”

He called Younger’s vote of no confidence bad timing, noting this weekend is the second busiest boating weekend of the summer.

Younger’s push to get rid of Bithell is not the first time Bithell, a Puritan Road resident, has found his town job at risk. In 1989, selectmen reappointed him after a petition signed by 35 residents leveled complaints against Bithell over his actions as harbormaster.

In reappointing Bithell, selectmen ordered him to agree to conditions concerning use of the town boat and establishment of specified office hours.