Plans for a $7 million shelter to house up to 26 families in the Plymouth Industrial Park brought long-simmering tensions to a boil during a Plymouth Advisory and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday evening.
By the end of the marathon session, two committee members had resigned in protest of how the meeting was conducted.
The Plymouth Area Coalition for the Homeless had come before the advisory board to seek its support for using $3 million in Community Preservation funds to help finance the project, which involves renovating a building at 54 Industrial Park Road. After much debate, the committee voted against recommending the expenditure.
Immediately following the 8 to 6 vote, member Bethany Rogers announced that she would submit her resignation letter to the town clerk. In that letter, Rogers said she was quitting the volunteer position “due to the lack of control, civility and decorum which has become the norm for the advisory and finance committee.”
“In recent months,” she wrote, “Advisory and Finance has become an unorganized spectacle where civility and common human decency is a rarity.”
Rogers blamed the committee’s leadership for encouraging the hostile questioning of speakers at its meetings.
Committee member Ashley Shaw’s resignation letter struck a similar tone.
“The current chair has made it clear that only certain people on his committee get to have an uninterrupted voice,” Shaw wrote in reference to committee chair Steven Nearman. “He has allowed the people that he agrees with to treat both committee members and presenters with disrespect and hostility.”
At the meeting, Sue Giovanetti, executive director of the Coalition, explained that the shelter would serve families for up to several months at a time.
Emergency assistance is available to all families with children that find themselves homeless, Giovanetti told the Independent. The state Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities, or EOHLC, makes an effort to place families within 20 miles of their community, she said. But because the shelter’s residents would not be chosen by a lottery, the project is not eligible for credit towards the number of affordable housing units in Plymouth, which was a point of contention during the meeting.
The meeting became tense almost from the start when committee member Timothy Lawlor began to question Giovanetti about police visits to the Pilgrim’s Hope shelter at 149 Bishops Highway – Route 80, in Kingston – where the Coalition also runs a shelter for families. He also asked about the origin of the families housed at another shelter, the Baymont by Windham motel in Kingston, many of whom have recently sought asylum in the United States.
“How many Plymouth homeless residents will be housed at the industrial site, guaranteed?” Lawlor asked.
“There are no guarantees,” replied Giovanetti. “If the doors opened tomorrow and there were 10 Plymouth families that had presented themselves to EOHLC and there were no extenuating circumstances prohibiting them from a Plymouth placement, I would have every confidence that those 10 families would be placed in Plymouth.”
Giovanetti, who is a member of the Plymouth Independent board, said the new shelter would help address the growing homelessness problem in Plymouth.
Shaw came to the defense of the project and its use of Community Preservation funds. The Community Preservation Committee had earlier approved the $3 million allocation by a unanimous vote. The final decision will be made by Town Meeting in the spring.
“The main purpose of a community is not to check off boxes on a sheet but to help our neighbors,” Shaw said, referring to her colleagues’ objections to the project on the grounds that it would not count towards the number of affordable housing units in town.
“We’re very hung up on checking a box and getting the 10 percent of utilization of affordable housing,” Rogers added.
Lawlor was not swayed.
“If we’re going to spend Plymouth’s taxpayers’ money, I would like to have Plymouth residents benefit,” he said, calling the proposal “deceptive.”
“This is not for the Town of Plymouth,” he said. “This is not directed towards the poor homeless of Plymouth.”
Asked to respond to Rogers’s and Shaw’s accusations that he allowed a hostile climate to fester on the committee, Nearman defended Wednesday night’s questioning of Giovanetti.
“It was not hostile,” he said, adding that he had not read the resignation letters. “Our committee’s mission is to vet out things that come before us, and in doing that, we have to question the people. And sometimes it may be uncomfortable, but we have to ask the questions that we need to make the decisions that we make.”
The committee voted 8-6 to recommend against using Community Preservation money to help fund the shelter. Members Brian Dunn, Bruce Howard, Rogers, Shaw, Emily Tompkins, and Jim Young supported the project. Gail Butler, Louis Cabana, Joseph Lalley, Lawlor, Lorenzo Pizarro, Christine Richards, Robert Zupperoli, and Daniel Green opposed it.
Once the tally was in, Rogers said she would resign.
“I’ve had presenters tell me that they’ve never in their life been spoken to or treated the way that they have in front of the Advisory and Finance Committee,” Rogers told the Independent.
Rogers said some questions posed to Giovanetti were “outside the bounds of questioning.”
“I have tremendous respect for Bethany,” Lawlor told the Independent, defending his line of questioning of Giovanetti.
“I asked some very tough questions that I needed some really serious answers to. I had one thing in mind, and that was to try to understand where $3 million was going and how it was going to benefit the Town of Plymouth and, specifically, the homeless families.”
Rogers and Shaw said that they had already planned to resign from the 15-member board soon, as both are planning to run for school committee this year. Wednesday’s meeting, they said, precipitated the date of their resignation.
Rogers said it was her understanding that the town moderator would appoint successors to fill out the remainder of her and Shaw’s three-year terms.
Giovanetti said she was taken aback by the line of questioning on Wednesday but is looking forward to making a presentation about the project at Town Meeting.
After the shelter drama, the meeting moved on to consider funding for an affordable housing project planned at the Redbrook development in South Plymouth. The Community Preservation Committee earlier voted to support the project, as did the Select Board.
The proposal would provide $4 million in Community Preservation money to go toward building 52 affordable housing units developed by The Grantham Group. A.D. Makepeace, owners of Redbrook, are donating 2.5 acres off Wareham Road for the complex.
Several committee members objected to using taxpayers’ money towards the $25 million project because Redbrook has not met a prior commitment to build 103 units of affordable housing and was now coming to the town to fund part of that obligation.
“Given how far you guys are behind, I can’t support using taxpayer money,” committee member Brian Dunn told Daniel Gorczyca, a Makepeace vice president.
Last week, Redbrook moved the project siteacross Wareham Road from where it had originally proposed to build, following a meeting with residents, and another with the Planning Board. Residents had objected to the original site because they feared it would intrude upon the Village Commons area.
A survey of 420 Redbrook residents – about 41 percent of the development’s population – found that 82 percent opposed using taxpayer funds for the project.
On Wednesday, the Advisory and Finance Committee voted 11-0 against recommending Town Meeting’s approval of the $4 million expenditure. Two members, Pizarro and Zupperoli, abstained. By the time the vote was taken, Rogers had left.
Towards the end of the four-hour meeting, Shaw, whose seven-year tenure made her the committee’s most senior member, announced her resignation from the committee.
“It is an embarrassing Gong Show every week,” Shaw said, blaming the “ineffective leadership of the current chair.”
She later said that the way Giovanetti was treated was the last straw.
“To see someone disrespected and harassed in the way that our presenter was allowed to be harassed, this is a common occurrence as of late with this committee,” Shaw said.
Fred Thys can be reached at email@example.com.
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