BILLERICA — Selectman George Simolaris thought of it as the most instantaneous constituent service he could provide. A man had asked why fading crosswalks downtown hadn’t been repainted, so Simolaris headed home, got a bucket of green paint, and took to brightening them up himself.
But what began as an admittedly unauthorized crusade to improve pedestrian safety has now turned into criminal charges. Simolaris will be charged by police with defacing public property Tuesday morning after painting seven crosswalks in the town center, it was announced at a spirited meeting of the Board of Selectmen Monday night.
In addition to the misdemeanor charges, selectmen called on their colleague to resign his seat, but the town bylaws provide no means for selectmen to force him out. The selectmen complained that Simolaris’s weekend efforts only resulted in a costly mess.
Simolaris said he is willing to pay for the cleanup, but he has no plans to quit.
Selectmen opened the meeting Monday night, which was attended by about 30 people, to public comment after announcing the charges, and several residents expressed displeasure.
Richard Massey, a 35-year town resident, said he was proud of Simolaris.
“It goes without saying that those intersections are dangerous. Something had to be done,” Massey said. Simolaris “should be commended.”
The meeting at Town Hall exposed a visible rift between Simolaris and Town Manager John Curran.
Simolaris accused Curran of not doing his job, and failing to improve crosswalks as promised.
Curran said Simolaris acted inappropriately.
The two traded jabs throughout the meeting, and audience members supported both sides.
One person was removed for continuously voicing displeasure at Curran.
“The crosswalks would’ve been painted in the coming weeks,” Curran said, and he added that the green color Simolaris chose made it worse for walkers at night.
He said the town has already spent nearly $4,000 fixing the paint.
Other residents pushed back.
“We should be paying [Simolaris],” Jerry Williams said. “I’m embarrassed the media is here for this stupid” dispute.
Resident George Noel was pleased to hear Simolaris was being charged. Noel said most of the town believes his actions crossed the line.
“What would you tell a mother whose kid was charged with vandalism?” he said. “This is the same thing.”
Noel referenced a neighbor who painted a fire hydrant with the words “ARREST ME” in support of Simolaris.
“We can’t have this,” he said.
Simolaris acknowledged that his actions caused more trouble than he was anticipating, but repeatedly blamed Curran.
He said if the town manager took care of crosswalks, he would not have acted.
“I respect the police and should not have put myself in jeopardy,” he said.
A painter by trade, Simolaris said he never expected such a harsh response. He said he was only making up for work he believed the town should have completed by now.
“I tried to be beneficial to residents,” he said in a phone interview prior to the meeting. “We said we would have these crosswalks painted by May. I promised that to the people who lived near me, and who asked me when it’s going to be done. I used a good paint, and did it as a temporary measure. But mainly I did it for safety.”
Curran said the crosswalks in question — along Andover Road — were due to be restored by the end of August as part of an ongoing project that involves a new thermal plastic paint.
Now, the town will have to repaint it twice. Crews washed away Simolaris’s handiwork and are replacing it with temporary striping. In addition, the green paint was against Billerica bylaws, Curran said.
“He’s added on an additional cost and he has created a tremendous amount of extra work,” Curran said. “Why he jumped the gun and painted them, I don’t know.”
The town manager said charges against Simolaris were pursued because “we want to make sure he is not treated differently than anyone else,” and that the town may also seek restitution.
Selectman Daniel Burns gave a short statement near the end of the meeting Monday.
“The ends do not justify the means,” he said, acknowledging Simolaris’s good intentions. “We can’t have citizens painting whatever they want.”
John Piscatelli, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, added that Simolaris was good friend, but he had made a mistake.
“It isn’t OK to circumvent the laws, especially when you’re sworn to uphold them,” Piscatelli said. “But this requires our town to act.”
Piscatelli said the town would seek financial restitution against Simolaris.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Annear can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.