A bizarre squabble in Hanson involving a stinky skunk, stolen weatherstripping, and an overturned table at a raucous public health meeting two years ago is now being fought in federal court in Boston.
Two health board members, Tom Constantine and Richard Edgehille, filed suit last month against the town, former town administrator, and two other residents who allegedly threatened them at the public meeting.
Hanson, a mostly residential town of about 10,000 south of Boston, has been embroiled in a series of heated political disputes in the past few years, punctuated by recall elections involving local officials. In June, voters recalled a selectman, Stephen M. Amico. And last year, voters recalled Constantine. Some of the tension ignited after the health board became more active under Constantine and Edgehille, clashing with selectmen and other town officials.
According to the lawsuit, however, the dispute erupted over a skunk.
Constantine received a complaint in August 2011 after an animal control officer tossed out a skunk at the town’s waste transfer station, where it stunk up the station. As a result, Constantine asked the town administrator, Rene Read, to order the animal control officer to stop disposing of skunks at the transfer station. But Read allegedly took umbrage at the request and fired back with insults and profanities.
The dispute devolved from there.
Later that year, Constantine complained to the town administrator about fire doors that were broken and missing weather stripping. When Read refused to respond, Constantine and a fellow official fixed the doors and added new weatherstripping. But two days later, they noticed the stripping was missing again and learned that Read had ordered a custodian to remove it.
There were also disputes about hiring and whether to expand the town’s oversight of farm animals after neighbors complained about cattle being kept near their property.
The dispute boiled over at a public meeting of the Board of Health in November 2012, when members voted to explore taking “legal action against the town administrator” for interfering with the panel.
The suit alleges that Read brought allies to the meeting. And immediately after the health board vote, one resident, Steven G. Cappellini Sr., threatened Constantine and flipped
a table, hitting Constantine and Edgehille, according to the suit. His son, Scott Cappellini, also threatened Constantine and Edgehille, the suit said. (The Cappellinis were allegedly angry because the health board was investigating complaints about fumes from their auto body shop at the time, according to the lawyer representing Constantine and Edgehille.)
The lawsuit said Read told police not to investigate and police only belatedly filed charges against the elder Cappellini after repeated complaints from Constantine. Edgehille and Constantine sought charges on their own against the son.
The lawsuit said Steven Cappellini has since pleaded guilty to sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding on assault charges, while the criminal charge against his son is pending. In addition to complaints about the assault, the suit also accused the town of violating the men’s civil rights, as well as their rights under the state’s whistle-blower statute.
The town and other defendants have yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit in court and Hanson’s new town administrator, Ronald San Angelo, declined to comment on most of the allegations.
But San Angelo said the animal control officer does not dispose of skunks at the transfer station and said he was not sure whether a skunk was ever discarded there.
Read, who could not be reached, resigned last year to become town manager of nearby Duxbury, which is larger. The Cappellinis did not return calls.
Timothy M. Burke, the Needham lawyer representing the health board officials, said the board had essentially been moribund for years and selectmen and the town administrator felt threatened when it became more active under Constantine and Edgehille. They sparred on a number of issues, such as how early to close the athletic fields to help protect residents from mosquitoes that could potentially be carrying West Nile or Eastern equine encephalitis.
“They were just trying to make the town better,” he said.
Burke said health board members ultimately decided to file suit because they were upset about being physically attacked at a meeting, even though they didn’t suffer serious physical injuries. He said the two men are seeking an unspecified amount of money.
“That never should have happened in a public arena,” Burke said. “There has never been any acceptance of responsibility of the town administration.”Todd Wallack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @twallack.