Milton Fistel

‘Political payback’ in Swampscott?

By GAYLA CAWLEY

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.

Town spending facing scrutiny in Swampscott

Swampscott Town Hall (Item file photo)

By Gayla Cawley

SWAMPSCOTT — Members of the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee are questioning how town funds were spent for two waterfront projects.

In 2011, Town Meeting members approved $95,000 for a harbor dredging project, but the project halted after a study identified eelgrass in the harbor and estimated a $3 million to $4 million price tag to remove the vegetation.

“In order to dredge the harbor, the eelgrass would have had to be removed,” town resident Mary Ellen Fletcher said.

A member of the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee and Finance Committee, Fletcher outlined for the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday the dredging project’s financial history. With the goal of allowing boats to be moored without getting caught in the sand, former Town Administrator Andrew Maylor requested money from the Seaport Council for the project early in 2011 and was granted $475,000.

The state money was to account for 75 percent of the project, with Swampscott responsible for the other 25 percent. But the project never moved past the study stage with the total cost whittled down to $94,180,

Fletcher and Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee members Glenn Kessler and Milton Fistel showed the selectmen invoices Wednesday to buttress their argument that the town should have only been responsible for 25 percent, or $23,545.

The three committee members pointed a proverbial finger at outgoing Town Administrator Thomas Younger in detailing how Younger sent a letter to the Seaport Council looking into funds for a breakwater in 2014.

The three laid out a financial argument for their claim that the town ultimately paid more than it was required to pay in connection with the breakwater study.

Designed to be built from large boulders and intended to protect the harbor from southeast and southwest waves, the breakwater was recommended for design last February by the Harbor Committee.

But, like the dredging study, the breakwater plan was halted in the spring when the committee voted not to proceed with either dredging or breakwater plans until spending concerns were resolved.

Kessler said he subsequently began assembling financial documentation related to the projects. Using the documents, Kessler, Fletcher and Fistel outlined how the state approved funding $115,738 for the breakwater study, or the equivalent of an 80 percent state share of the project costs with the town responsible for the other 20 percent.

But the three said the study’s price tag was ultimately only $61,863, meaning the town’s share should have been $12,372.

The study showed that a breakwater project would cost about $7 million, but if stones could be acquired from the Boston Harbor dredging project, the cost could be driven down to around $5 million.

Fletcher said the full $95,000 approved at Town Meeting for the dredging project was used by the town to pay for part of the cost of the two studies, which totaled $156,043. She said that means the town overpaid by $59,082.

Town Accountant Dave Castellarin could not be reached on Wednesday to verify that the town spent all of the funds approved at Town Meeting.

Fletcher questioned why funds approved at Town Meeting for a dredging study would be partly used on one for a breakwater, a separate project.

“What Tom Younger needed to do was say we need to go back to Town Meeting,” she said. “Dredging doesn’t work and I need money for a breakwater … Town Meeting could have said we’re going to study a breakwater.”

Younger declined to comment on the committee members’ account Thursday, except to say, “We’re currently reviewing it.” He is slated to start his new job as town of Stoneham administrator on Oct. 17.

Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, confined her comments on the waterfront spending concerns to saying:

“This is a very unusual situation and I haven’t seen another one like this ever. So, it’s certainly unique and we will certainly be looking into it.”


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

Swampscott Discusses Breakwater Protection

ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
A proposed breakwater in Swampscott would control waves like these taken from Red Rock in Lynn.

BY GAYLA CAWLEY

SWAMPSCOTT — Two proposed breakwaters could help to improve the protection given to the waterfront and harbor in Swampscott, according to representatives from the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee and APEX, a consulting firm.

“It will help make Swampscott a destination city,” said Jay Borkland, vice president and director of waterways and new energy services at APEX.

Milton Fistel, member of the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee, said a $475,000 grant was received in 2010 for what was supposed to be a dredging project study.

Fistel said the committee went out for a Request for Proposals for the study and decided to hire APEX, a Boston-based company that offers comprehensive professional and field services to assess, prevent and cure environmental issues related to water, ground, facilities and air quality, according to a company description.

Fistel said APEX came on board in 2012 and started the preliminary study work on the dredging project. He said another $115,000 was needed to study the breakwater. Those funds were provided by the Seaport Advisory Council.

The results of the study were presented at a Feb. 3 Board of Selectmen meeting by Jackson Schultz, chairman of the Harbor and Waterfront Advisory Committee, Borkland and Donald Boye, senior project manager for APEX.

With the study, it was found that dredging would prove to be too costly and not a permanent solution. Fistel said eelgrass was found in the harbor and would have made the project too expensive.

According to the presentation, there are many regulatory approvals involved with eelgrass and dredging. Eelgrass restoration costs would be $120,000 per acre. The dredging project price would be driven to the $3.7 million to $4.2 million, which includes about $2 million for beach nourishment. The dredging would also need to be repeated every 10 to 20 years for maintenance and wouldn’t be a one-time cost.

According to the presentation, the dredging project would improve access, but does not protect the harbor from damage.

Instead, presenters recommended that the town move forward with a two-part breakwater design on Humphrey Street, which would protect the harbor from the Southeast and Southwest. Fistel said a breakwater off Lincoln House Point would mitigate waves coming out of the Southeast, and the other breakwater, which would be off Humphrey Street going towards Lynn, would mitigate waves from the Southwest. He said the harbor is already protected from the Northeast, as Lincoln House Point sticks far out into the harbor and provides a natural land area of protection.

Fistel said the breakwaters, which are typically made of very big stones or boulders about 10 to 15 tons each, in a pyramid design, would be about 1,800 feet offshore from the beach. At low tide, he said the breakwater would be about 20 feet above the water and eight feet wide at the top of the structure. He said the length of the breakwater would be about 2,200 feet.

The cost of the proposed $7 million breakwater project could be driven down to about $4.8 million if stones could be acquired from the Boston Harbor dredging project, according to the presentation.

“When I think of the harbor, I see three ways you can go,” John Callahan, member of the Board of Selectmen, said. “The way we have been going, [which is] stick your head in the sand and forget about it, dredge and replace, [which we would] do every 10 to 20 years, or put up the breakwater, [which is] a one and done solution. It seems like a pretty sensible solution.”

According to the presentation, a breakwater design would offer greater protection for the harbor and shoreline infrastructure than a dredging project. It would also reduce the regulatory difficulties associated with impacting eelgrass beds.

Dredging the harbor would benefit the boating community, while a breakwater would benefit the entire community, according to the presentation. Benefits outlined include making Swampscott a very protected harbor by sharply reducing storm damage to vessels and the waterfront, and wave run-up flooding. Other benefits outlined include encouraging waterfront development on Humphrey Street and providing a rocky habitat for lobsters, mussels and juvenile fish.

Fistel said the breakwater would reduce flooding on Puritan Road and Humphrey Street during storms. He said the breakwater wouldn’t stop an eight- to 10-foot wave during a storm completely, as some of the water is going to come over, but would break a typical five-foot wave.

“Another positive project associated with the breakwater is that the Swampscott Renewable Energy Committee is exploring the feasibility of using the breakwaters to attach a wave-powered turbine to produce electricity,” Fistel said.

Boye said if the breakwater project were to move forward, he would expect it to begin in early 2017. Public input is still needed as the committee and APEX will present the project in a series of public meetings before possible approval is received from the Board of Selectmen. A timeline has not been set for those meetings.

“While we’re doing this, simultaneously, we need to look at various options of how we pay for this,” Town Administrator Thomas Younger said. “We don’t want to be stopped along the way with ‘how do we pay for this.”


 

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