By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — An already heated debate about whether the town should go forward with plans for a proposed rail trail intensified Wednesday night during an interruption-filled attempt by the Board of Selectmen to conduct an informational meeting before next week’s special election.
A warrant article approved at Town Meeting by a 210-56 vote last month would have allocated $850,000 for the design and engineering of the trail location within the National Grid corridor, as well as the legal fees and costs for acquisition of easement rights.
But a group of residents against the trail, including abutters, who have been vocal in their opposition, fought the vote, and spearheaded a citizens’ petition that garnered enough signatures to force a town-wide special election slated for next Thursday. Voters will be presented with the same question voted on and approved at Town Meeting.
The two-plus mile, 10-foot wide trail would run from the Swampscott Train Station to the Marblehead line at Seaview Avenue, connecting with the Marblehead rail trail, which also links to trails in Salem.
Before the vote, the Board of Selectmen asked residents to submit questions about the rail trail that were addressed at their regularly scheduled Wednesday night meeting.
More than 60 questions were submitted, but some residents who packed the room wanted to also have their thoughts heard during the session, with chants of “let her speak” heard while one resident tried to make a statement before the questions were read. She was told she could make her statement during resident comment.
The exchange prompted a response from Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen.
“This is a Board of Selectmen meeting,” Dreeben said. “This is not a public forum. This is our meeting. We are a board elected by the public.”
That comment prompted a response by one member of the audience, who said “we are the public.” Dreeben said she was not going to be bullied into changing the agenda.
The rest of the night took a similar tone, as residents told the Selectmen to not advocate while giving their answers to the questions sent in by residents. For an agenda that allocated an hour of time for a rail trail discussion, and 15 minutes of resident comment, the topic ended up taking more than three hours.
Jer Jurma, a member of the Municipal Design Committee and Historic District Commission, said he has lived in Swampscott for 14 years, and the town has an amazing community of people, but “the behavior in the room this evening is the most appalling behavior I’ve seen in 14 years.”
Opponents, including many abutters, expressed their discomfort with eminent domain, with the first set of questions devoted to the topic. Other opposition has included safety and privacy concerns. Residents in support of the trail have spoken about how it would provide free exercise and a way for people to get out in nature.
The informational meeting also comes in the wake of a complaint filed earlier this month by the “Vote No on the June 29th ballot committee” with the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance. A press release sent by the group states they have banded together to “fight human rights abuse, unrelenting tax increases and questionable political activities in the community of Swampscott.”
The group’s “complaint alleges that Swampscott Town Administrator (Sean Fitzgerald), in blatant disregard for established law has allowed town resources to be used by the ballot committee established by supporters of the ballot question to be voted on by Swampscott voters on June 29,” the release reads.
“Using taxpayer money to take sides in this debate, before the taxpayers get to decide is unconstitutional and it’s illegal,” said Kim Nassar, chairwoman of the group, in a statement.
Paul Dwyer, another member, said in a statement that “first they want to take our land against our will, then they want to keep increasing our taxes and now they play dirty by using taxpayer money to campaign for their side.”
Fitzgerald, in response, said in a phone interview that he understands there are some heightened emotions but that the town has not violated any campaign finance regulations.
Fitzgerald said in a separate statement that he sent all residents a letter on May 19, providing a summary of important financial actions taken by Town Meeting, including property tax relief and a vote to fund the proposed rail trail.
“We understand that certain residents have filed a complaint with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) concerning this letter and the rail trail project,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The town has not received a copy of such complaint and therefore is not in a position to comment on it. However, advisories from OCPF have long concluded that the campaign finance law does not restrict elected and appointed policy-making officials, such as the Board of Selectmen and town administrator, from using public resources to communicate with residents on matters within their jurisdiction, so long as such efforts are unrelated to an election.
“The town is confident that its letter to residents informing residents of the votes taken by Town Meeting on a number of issues, including the rail trail article, was consistent with applicable law, particularly where no referendum petition had been filed at the time when the letter was sent.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.