Moving and shaking in Swampscott

White dollar sign on turquoise

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.

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.

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