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'Shocked' by rejection

'I've never crossed boards,' Bernadone says

July 14, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Saying he was "pretty shocked," Rinaldo Bernardone had no idea he was even up for reappointment at Monday's Town Council meeting.

He said he first heard of it afterward, when a reporter left him a message that he'd been rejected.

"Christopher [Clark, town manager,] told me it would go through subcommittee first, and I was waiting to hear about that," Bernardone said in the Town Hall lot Tuesday morning. "I would've been here last night if I'd known I was up."

Normally, the council agenda for appointments and most other items indicates in italics whether the relevant subcommittee favored the item. Monday's agenda, however, had none of those references, and none of the subcommittees have met since at least the beginning of July. Despite that, it unanimously approved two other people — Thomas Smalarz for the Scholarship Committee and Paul Musci for the Planning Board.

Bernardone said he hadn't heard anything, so he assumed the council was waiting to reorganize its subcommittees and set up new meetings to screen candidates for several boards, including him.

Those who voted against Bernardone Monday said they felt multiple-board membership in general is a problem. He is also on the Liquor License Board, and said he was asked to join them by different town managers (Coughlin and Carlisle) for basically the same reason — "because they had nobody."

"I've never crossed boards," he said. "If I'm on the liquor board, I tell [people] to go to the Board of Health. I won't speak for them."

Councilor Denise Clemence noted there's still a chance Bernardone can return to the health board. Although she voted 'no,' she admitted she did so with some reservations rooted mostly in a lack of knowledge, with Clark absent and no chance to talk to Bernardone.

She said she was surprised to hear Bernardone's appointment had never gone to a subcommittee meeting and noted that under Robert's Rules of Order, items that get rejected can be brought back up within three months. She now chairs the Education and Human Services subcommittee, which reviews appointments to the health board.

Southbridge has 15 people holding seats on two or more boards. One of them is Ken Pickren, chairman of the Conservation Commission and the advisory Trails Committee.

"I don't have a problem with people being on multiple boards if they can keep the issues [of each] aside and do it diplomatically," Pickren said. He noted "eyebrows raise" sometimes when trails issues come up at conservation meetings, but he tries to keep them separate.

To him, the issue is a lack of organized recruitment for vacancies. He doesn't think that should be the manager's job. Instead, it is really a board's responsibility to recommend people to him based on what they know they need for skills and the community members they believe have them, Pickren said.

"I see people who should be serving not serve because they were never asked," he added. "People aren't just going to come out of the woodwork."

Councilor Catherine Nikolla, the first one to vote against Bernardone, agreed. She expanded upon her initial comments, saying the numerous overlapping seat-holders give people the impression they'll have no chance if they apply for a seat and make them think "it's all the same faces."

She said she's not against overlapping membership entirely, only against having people sit on more than one "autonomous" board. Specifically, those are boards that have statutory authority independent of the council, even though they're appointed by the manager and confirmed by council — including Health, Conservation, Zoning, Liquor and Planning. She said people who want a seat on one of those "powerful" boards can still be appointed to a council sub-committee or one of the advisory committees (including Trails, Historical, Agricultural and Recreation).

Overlapping membership between appointed and elected boards is more of a gray area. At present, the charter doesn't address any of this issue except for precluding councilors from serving on any other town board. It has no such restriction for the other elected boards — School Committee, Housing Authority, Redevelopment Authority or Assessors.

The only person currently in that situation is Dr. Tom O'Leary, who was elected to the School Committee last year just before being reappointed to his Board of Health seat. He could not be reached for comment, nor could Council Chairman Steven Lazo.

Nikolla said she did not know how many people held overlapping seats, but she'd like to see the soon-to-be-appointed Charter Review Commission address such issues. Of the 15 existing overlaps, Nikolla's restriction on "autonomous boards" would reduce the list of concern to four people: O'Leary, Rene Tremblay (on Health and Planning), Dean Cook (on Conservation and Health) and Michael Daniels (on Liquor and Conservation). Daniels was just put into that situation last month, when the council added him to Conservation unanimously; his liquor board seat is as an alternate. Tremblay's planning seat is also an alternate, meaning they have limited voting authority.

To Bernardone, if the council is going to do that, it must be consistent whenever other people in the same situation come up for reappointment.

"If they keep it going all the way through for everyone, then nobody has anything to squawk about," Bernardone said. "… But why start with me?"

He said he "could handle it" if someone had objected to specific things he'd done on the Board of Health, but added that he believes he has always "been fair" to people coming before either of his committees. If given the choice, he said, he'd rather keep the Board of Health and surrender the liquor board seat, but "didn't get the option."

"I've got a lot invested in that with the landfill," he said. "The health and safety of the community comes first with me."

If overlapping memberships get restricted, Bernardone predicted the town would have trouble filling the newly vacant seats.

"They'd be in big trouble because they don't have a lot of volunteers," he said. "… Some people like being on multiple boards because they don't mind the extra work."

He said he plans to talk to Clark about the fact he never had a chance to discuss the reappointment with a subcommittee, but did not know whether that would make any difference.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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