The chairman of the Holbrook Finance Committee has filed an ethics complaint against Town Administrator William Phelan, alleging that an e-mail Phelan sent to him in error demonstrated at least an appearance of conflict with regard to Tuesday’s School Committee election.
The future of the Holbrook schools has stirred controversy as the community debates whether to solve the woes of its deteriorating facilities by building a new school for Holbrook only, or first thoroughly studying alternatives, such as regionalizing with another community or paying for students to attend other schools.
A former town official who spoke to the Globe said a spreadsheet attached to Phelan’s e-mail appeared to be a contact list for the purpose of influencing the election.
“At its best, it seems like an appearance of a conflict,” said Kevin Costa, the Finance Committee chairman. “At its worst, it seems like a misuse of town resources, misuse of power, misuse of access.”
Phelan, a former mayor of Quincy, said he wrote the e-mail on his own time and sent it from a personal account. He said he has a right as an American to support candidates for election, and he supported those — though he would not name them — who favored studying school regionalization.
“I really believe that that issue is important for the town’s future,” he said.
He would not comment on how others interpreted the e-mail, including an allegation by Stephen Gallagher, a former School Committee member who saw the message, that it appeared to list the initials of four of the five selectmen, as well as town employees, next to the names of voters they were to contact.
“I’m not going to comment on anything I do on my own personal time,” Phelan said.
Phelan works part-time, 25 hours a week, and posts his hours in advance at Town Hall. According to the assistant town administrator, he was scheduled for vacation time and was not in the office at the hour the e-mail was sent, 11:43 a.m. on March 27, but he worked in the evening to attend meetings.
The document, obtained by the Globe, lists 7,032 lines of names, addresses, and party affiliations — similar, but not identical, to the current number of registered voters in Holbrook, which is 6,669. Some of the lines, under an additional column titled “Friend,” contain letters, some of which match the initials of four selectmen: chairman Timothy Gordon, Brinsley Fuller, Richard McGaughey, and Kevin Sheehan.
The initials of the fifth selectman, Matthew Moore, did not appear to be listed. On more than one occasionAt times, he has cast the lone dissenting vote against pursuing regionalization.
Gallagher suggested the e-mail was intended for Sheehan, who has the same first name as Costa. The body of the message reads, “Kevin here is the final list. Please call Tim and let him know you have it. Thanks, Bill”.
Gordon, McGaughey, and Sheehan supported Ellen Morrissey Rota and Elizabeth C. Tolson for the School Committee, and Sheehan said they won his backing because they were open to looking at regionalization and other options for the school system. Fuller said he supported two candidates, but he declined to name them.
Tolson won one of two school board seats up for election, along with incumbent John Flanagan. A fourth candidate, Amie Pierce, advocated building a K-through-12 school in Holbrook and said in January that she generally did not favor regionalization, but was not completely against it. She opposed paying for students to go elsewhere, another option discussed by residents who believe Holbrook needs to consider regionalization to improve its children’s education.
During a discussion of the school issue at a public meeting in December 2011, Flanagan accused Phelan of displaying a “level of insensitivity” toward Town Meeting, which had rejected an article to create a regionalization planning committee.
The win by Flanagan and Tolson on Tuesday split the ticket supported by the majority of the selectmen. Flanagan received 500 votes and Tolson 486, according to the town clerk. Rota received 429, Pierce 422.
In the selectmen’s race, McGaughey ran unopposed and received 610 votes. A total of 978 ballots were cast.
Costa, who referred to himself as “patient zero” in the spreading of Phelan’s e-mail, said Phelan sent him a second e-mail about 30 minutes later asking him to delete the message and saying it was intended for someone else. Phelan also called Costa’s wife on her cellphone and asked for him, he said.
Previously, he and the town administrator had a very good working relationship, Costa said. He and the Finance Committee supported the idea of studying regionalization.
Costa dismissed Phelan’s defense that the e-mail was sent from a personal account.
“As a town administrator, if you’re acting on behalf of those that employ you and those that oversee you — that would be the Board of Selectmen — there is no such thing as private,” he said.
Ann Poppenga, an outgoing School Committee member who supported Pierce and did not run for reelection, called the alleged organizing “unfathomable” and said she felt as though her tax dollars were being misused. “That makes me sick,” she said.
Gordon, chairman of the selectmen, said that selectmen working on School Committee campaigns did not present a problem. “As long as they’re not deliberating on town matters, three selectmen can be in the same room at the same time,” he said.
He said that Rota and Tolson had strong backgrounds on education and that to suggest the race was solely about regionalization was oversimplifying the situation.
“People are quick to say, ‘These people are for regionalization, and these folks are against it,’ ” he said, but he supports studying the alternatives.
Sheehan said he was not aware of any organizing of a call list by Phelan. Fuller said he had not received Phelan’s e-mail and had not made telephone calls to promote candidates, though he had talked to family about the race during broader conversations.
McGaughey said people who oppose regionalization want to hold onto the town’s individuality, but that children pay the price. Holbrook’s state test scores are “amongst the lowest in the state,” he said, and the School Committee has “gone nowhere for years.”
He brushed aside the allegations of impropriety, saying accusations happen day and night in politics. “I wake up every morning supporting who I want,” he said. “If someone else wants to help out, that’s great.”
Costa said he filed the ethics complaint on March 28, and he anticipates an initial investigation by the State Ethics Commission could last a month. The agency does not confirm or deny complaints or pending investigations.
Jennette Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.