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CANTON

Canton abuzz over abrupt exit of conservation agent

The abrupt exit of Canton’s longtime conservation agent has stirred up controversy and allegations of corruption at Town Hall, resulted in anonymous letters circulating around the community, and left many of its 21,500 residents with questions.

At the center of the controversy is Robert J. Murphy, who was ousted from his position in November. The Canton Citizen newspaper reported that Murphy was dismissed after allegations surfaced that he was involved with an engineering firm that had submitted permit applications to the town, a potential violation of the state’s conflict of interest law.

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Murphy had served as Canton’s conservation agent for 22 years, and was paid an annual salary of $48,960.

In a telephone interview with the Globe, Robert E. Burr Jr., chairman of Canton’s Board of Selectmen, confirmed that Murphy was no longer working for the town but said he “wasn’t fired.” Burr said the town ended its contract for conservation services with Danena Inc., a consulting and engineering firm that Murphy owns.

“He had a contract with the town that we chose to terminate,” Burr said. “We terminated it without cause. Beyond that, I’m not at liberty to comment.”

But the town Conservation Commission’s meeting minutes indicate that Murphy was dismissed after members of the panel said they discovered he had ties to an engineering firm that had applied for permits from the town, which made them concerned he might be gaining financially from projects under their review.

According to a copy of the meeting minutes obtained by the Globe, the commission met with town counsel John Richard Hucksam Jr. in executive session on Nov. 7 to discuss a “possible conflict of interest” involving Murphy’s connection to M&M Engineering Inc., a Delaware corporation that had filed eight applications to the town over a span of 18 months.

According to the minutes, commission members expressed to Hucksam that “trust had been lost” and the commission was “disappointed with Mr. Murphy for not coming forward or recusing himself from hearings involving M&M Engineering.” The minutes indicate Murphy was listed as the president and phone contact for M&M Engineering, which had most recently submitted an application for a property at 18 Hillsview St. that included storm water plans with “incorrect drainage calculations, elevations, and hydrograph information.”

The minutes state that Hucksam told the commission that Murphy admitted to being involved with M&M Engineering since October 2011, but that it was unclear what Murphy’s role and involvement was. Hucksam said that the issue was never brought to the attention of town counsel before then, and that Murphy should not review plans or permit applications from M&M Engineering. The minutes also state that “Hucksam strongly recommended not contacting the State Ethics Commission,” or risk “a full investigation that could take several months.”

Before the meeting ended, the commission members voted 5-2 to recommend that Murphy submit a letter of resignation by Nov. 13, or to ask that selectmen terminate his contract.

Hucksam could not be reached for comment.

Reached by e-mail, Murphy, who lives in Easton, declined to comment on the situation.

“I appreciate that fact that you contacted me regarding this matter,” he wrote in his e-mail. “However, the entire matter was in executive session, and as such I cannot discuss it at this time no matter what others have done.”

In an interview, commission member Bruce Rohr said he was surprised at how selectmen reacted to the panel’s recommendation to force Murphy out.

“The Conservation Commission, on our own, discovered that Bob Murphy was [involved with] M&M Engineering,” said Rohr. “I thought they would have thanked us, that we uncovered corruption in town. We were shocked.”

Rohr said the selectmen defended Murphy and told commission members that “the problem was with us and we should have solved the problem on our own.” He said that he doesn’t know how they could have handled anything differently, because the commission has limited authority. Commission members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen to serve three-year terms.

Rohr, whose term expires in April, said selectmen have since been trying to stop officials from discussing the subject. He said what upsets him more is “not the original crime, it’s the cover-up.”

Burr denied Rohr’s claim of any “cover-up,” saying the board was simply following the advice of the town’s lawyer. “Town counsel advised both the Board of Selectmen and the Conservation Commission not to speak regarding the matter,” said Burr. “That came from the town counsel.”

Some residents say they remain concerned over how the allegations against Murphy were handled. An entity called “Canton Citizens for Honest Government” recently sent residents an anonymous letter outlining the allegations against Murphy. The letter accused Murphy of personally benefiting from his role as conservation agent, and, in that role, advising Conservation Commission members on plans provided by M&M Engineering. The letter also criticized two of the selectmen for voting to keep Murphy as conservation agent.

Murphy declined to comment on the allegations in the letter. “As much as I would like to, I cannot comment at this time. Thank you for sharing the letter,” he wrote.

Canton resident Tori McClain, who lives next to property that is being redeveloped, said she thinks it’s absurd that selectmen did not unanimously vote to terminate Murphy’s services, because, in her view, Murphy was “clearly engaged in unethical behavior.”

McClain, who moved to Canton three years ago, said the condo project proposed for the property next to her home has prompted her to attend town meetings and opened her eyes to “a wide swath of corruption in our town.”

McClain says she plans to run for the Planning Board because she “wants to be part of a solution, and not just complain about it.” She said that Murphy is “one small cog in much larger problem,” and that she has been in touch with investigators from the State Ethics Commission and inspector general’s office.

Not everyone is happy to see Murphy go.

Conservation Commission member James A. Fitzpatrick, a retired fire chief who has sat on the panel for eight years and also serves on the Council on Aging, noted that Murphy had been employed by the town for decades. He said town officials should not have let Murphy go.

“People make mistakes,” said Fitzpatrick, who voted against calling for Murphy’s resignation. Murphy “will be hard to replace. There’s a large amount of area to Canton, it’s almost 20 square miles.’’ Getting to learn the lay of the land’’ will take time, he said.

The town is in the process of seeking a new conservation agent. The job posting states that the conservation agent “works with minimal supervision and must exhibit a high level of professional integrity. Salary is competitive and commensurate with skills and experience. This position is considered full time working between 20-32 hours per week,” with “a full benefits package.”

Burr said he hopes a hire would be made by spring. “There’s been a number of applicants,” he said. “We’d like to fill it as soon as reasonably possible.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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