With a new high school under construction, a major upgrade and expansion of the public library underway, a new hotel soon to open, and fresh efforts to revive the downtown, there are plenty of signs of forward momentum in Stoughton.
But there is also much amiss.
Over the past several months, the town has been rocked by a bitter controversy involving the ouster of then-town manager Michael J. Hartman by a divided Board of Selectmen, a lawsuit brought by Hartman against the town, and most recently the launching of a recall campaign against the three selectmen who voted for his removal.
Adding to the political fracas have been acrimonious public meetings and an episode in which Hartman, who contends he was not legally removed from his job, arrived at Town Hall to find that the lock on his office door had already been changed.
The current episode recalls a political storm in 2004, when two selectmen who demoted the police chief were swept out of office in a recall vote.
The interim town manager, Stephen Anastos, who assumed the post July 26, insisted the town remains on a positive track, noting for example that both the high school and library projects are proceeding on schedule and under budget.
“Everything is working extremely well,” Anastos said. “If you didn’t pay attention to social media, you wouldn’t even know there is a recall.” But many residents are paying attention.
The chairman of the selectmen, David “Spanky” Sousa, who is facing a recall along with Robert Cohn and Peter Brown, said that while town business is proceeding, “the residents are divided, and that is sad.” And with the recall election approaching — selectmen have set Dec. 5 as the date — both sides are speaking out loudly.
“In a democracy you can do what you want. I’m just upset that we had a recall over 10 years ago and it destroyed the town, and that’s what they are doing again, destroying the town, in my opinion,” Sousa said of the proponents of the recall.
But Deborah J. Sovinee, a recall leader, said the effort was spurred by the alleged failure of the three selectmen to adhere to the town charter, and a desire among residents for a “more professional board.”
“If they had taken a fraction of the energy they have put into getting rid of the town manager . . . and put it into fixing the downtown or fulfilling the master plan, they would have served the community much better,” said Sovinee, a former chairwoman of the Stoughton School Committee.
Selectmen voted 3 to 1 on Dec. 15 not to renew Hartman’s contract when it expired this June 30, with Sousa, Cohn, and Brown voting in favor, Bob O’Regan against, and one member absent. Hartman had begun his tenure in December 2012.
In a raucous meeting June 30, the board voted 3 to 2 to appoint town accountant William Rowe interim manager, with Sousa, Cohn, and Brown voting in favor and O’Regan and new member Michael T. Sullivan opposed.
Hartman, then on family medical leave, told selectmen in a memo that he objected to the vote and believed he was still town manager because he had not been discharged as the town charter requires. He said he planned to resume his job when his leave ended. But when he returned to work July 14, Hartman found a new lock on his door, he alleged in his Superior Court lawsuit, filed later that month.
‘Everything is working extremely well. If you didn’t pay attention to social media, you wouldn’t even know there is a recall.’
The lawsuit alleges the town engaged in breach of contract and wrongful termination, among other charges, in connection with the hiring of the interim manager.
Hartman contended that even though his contract had expired, he remained the town manager, citing a charter provision requiring a 4 to 1 vote by the board to terminate the employment of a town manager.
But in a July 26 ruling, Judge Michael D. Ricciuti denied Hartman’s motion for a preliminary injunction, finding that the six-month notice the board gave Hartman of nonrenewal of his contract was sufficient.
Neither Hartman nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.
O’Regan, an attorney, disagrees with the judge’s ruling.
“The town charter says the town manager serves at the will of the board and may be discharged by a vote of the majority plus one,” he said, adding that state law requires town manager contracts to be in accordance with the town charter. But Sousa said the judge’s ruling shows the board followed legal requirements.
“The judge said we did not violate the charter,” he said. “Everyone says we fired [Hartman], but we did not renew the contract.”
Sullivan said he did not understand the need to discontinue Hartman as town manager. “Frankly, I thought he was doing a fantastic job,” he said, noting the town had entered a relatively stable period and had just broken ground on the two building projects.
O’Regan said he voted against Hartman’s replacement “because no real criteria were stated for the basis of that decision” and the manager had not been formally evaluated.
Sousa cited his belief that Hartman did not adequately communicate with the board and others as his reason for not supporting a contract renewal. Cohn would not comment, while Brown could not be reached.
Recall organizers collected at least 1,285 certified signatures — well above the 900 required — on each of the three petitions they filed to seek recalls of Sousa, Cohn, and Brown.
For each seat on the board, voters will cast ballots on whether to recall the selectman and who should fill the seat if the recall prevails.
The search for a permanent town manager is on hold pending the recall.John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.