From the Hampshire Gazette
Hadley Select Board axes conservation chairwoman in permit spat
Published: 7/8/2021 4:50:12 PM
HADLEY — Citing complaints about onerous oversight of wetlands rules by the Conservation Commission, and suggesting commissioners are not playing on “Team Hadley,” the Select Board chose Wednesday not to reappoint its chairwoman.
Even with resignation threats from remaining members of the commission and the lone conservation staff member if the Select Board cut membership, the board voted 4-1 to reduce the commission from seven to six members and remove its chairwoman, Paulette Kuzdeba. Select Board members Jane Nevinsmith cast the dissenting vote.
“It seems the Conservation Commission is just not helping the public to help move everything through smoothly, to give them their permits and to get their jobs done,” Select Board member John Waskiewicz said.
Waskiewicz came up with the idea of trimming the commission, making it more streamlined, after receiving more than two dozen complaints about the commission’s work.
“All the complaints I’ve gotten, most of them from farmers in town, is that it’s a customer-service issue,” Select Board Chairman David J. Fill said.
Board member Amy Parsons said that the complaints include that members of the commission are unwilling to assist their fellow residents.
“When we’re here, we’re Team Hadley, that is who we are, that is what we are. I don’t care about your political affiliation, I don’t care about anything else,” Parsons said. “I’m Team Hadley, and I’m here for the town.”
Board member Joyce Chunglo said she has no problem with the knowledge and background of those serving, but the Conservation Commission is not getting residents through permitting easily.
“What I have found, and what I am disturbed about, our citizens of Hadley, when they have gone to the (Conservation Commission), have not had good relations with them in guiding them through the processes they have had,” Chunglo said.
Kuzdeba, though, defended the commission, especially with a growing caseload as it has been charged with regulating campers and docks along the Connecticut River.
“We are very helpful to people in working with them,” said Kuzdeba, a member of the commission since 2006.
She said commission members are dedicated team players working long hours, and just four permits have been denied since 1973. Kuzdeba added that removing her without just cause could be a violation of federal and civil rights and interference with her legal duties under the Massachusetts Wetlands Act and the town wetlands bylaw.
Prior to the meeting, Kuzdeba said she was being made a scapegoat by one property owner upset about his riverside site being limited to two campers. She said she had no opportunity to respond to him or even know what the other complaints are.
“This is their way of getting rid of me, plain and simple,” she said. “They’ve never contacted me about reducing the number of members.”
Two Conservation Commission members, Toni Lyn Morelli and Jim Hafner, submitted their resignations in protest Thursday.
Morelli said she was “flabbergasted” at the Select Board’s action and described the loss of Kuzdeba as devastating.
“At the very least this feels like a very bad process,” Morelli said, adding that the commission never turns down anyone’s project, but does promote protection of plants and wildlife, air and water, especially on the Connecticut River.
“It has a chilling effect that dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers appear to face sanction and have the Select Board sort of question their integrity and intent,” Hafner said.
The departures could possibly hold up projects that the commission has begun reviewing, including the state Department of Transportation’s widening of Route 9,
Though a decision was made, Kuzdeba said, “My attitude is I’ve already been reappointed.”
In fact, her reappointment was part of a consent agenda adopted by the board at its June 23 meeting, even though Fill told her otherwise in a text message that night, arguing that her name and that of member Stephen Szymkowicz had been withheld.
“I believe Mr. Fill exceeded his authority stating such and acting unilaterally on behalf of the Select Board without their input on the matter, thus violating his sworn duty to the Select Board and the town,” Kuzdeba said.
She also alleged that board members may have talked about the decision on reducing the size of the commission outside the meeting, a violation of the Open Meeting Law.
In May, a former member of the town’s Select Board alleged the current board violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when it adopted a new policy related to COVID-19 vaccinations and access to municipal buildings.
Mark Dunn, an elected member of the Planning Board, said the Conservation Commission plays a vital role in maintaining, conserving and protecting the environment.
“They’ve got the long view, and I don’t think we should cut them off at the knees,” Dunn said.
Planning Board Clerk William Dwyer said the commission’s expertise is an essential part of the town’s volunteer government.
“I am concerned you are trying to redesign the town’s land permitting use system on the fly,” Dwyer said. A consequence could be the need to hire a conservation director at significant expense to the town, he said.
Conservation staff member Janice Stone, hired by former commission chairwoman Alexandra Dawson in 2005, called the decision to dismantle the commission “a malicious attack on a great conservation chair.”
“She is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in and she knows the wetlands regulations,” Stone said. “She is irreplaceable.”
Andy Morris-Friedman, who lost his position on the Community Preservation Act Committee a year ago, said Hadley should move to have more officials elected to avoid the “capricious whim” of Select Board appointments.
“All you have to do is disagree with the Select Board and they don’t reappoint you,” Morris-Friedman said. “Believe me, I know.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.