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Select Board Endorses Second Deputy Chief Position, Appointment of Columbus, Farnum

Montuori, above, outlined in detail how TPD staffing decision was made

The Select Board met last night with all members present.

Sukhvinder Singh appeared for Taste of the Himalayas, formerly the Saffron Grill. The 1,800 square foot restaurant at 1921 Main St., directly across from McDonald’s, seats 37 diners and is seeking a full liquor license to sell beer, wine and spirits. 

Singh said the Saffron Grill had a liquor license but surrendered it when the restaurant closed down during the pandemic. In response to a question from member Pat Holland, he shared that Saffron Grill had no violations. He stated that he will have TIPS-certified staff on site during opening hours.

The board voted unanimously to table the license application to July 18 to give Singh time to pull together a more complete plan to responsibly serve alcohol.

Town Planner and Community Development Director Alex Lowder presented the town’s new Housing Production Plan, which was unanimously endorsed by the Planning Board on Monday. The town’s current plan expired in 2021. Lowder again outlined the year-long process of community involvement that went into the new strategy, including a survey to solicit input and two workshops where residents could ask questions.

Find the full 155-page draft document here. 

Most affordable housing uses the 80% threshold to determine who is qualified. A family of three making $80,000 per year would be able to purchase or rent a unit deemed affordable, yet few are available. There are 509 families on the affordable housing waitlist, with an expected resident wait time of 30 years. The town is barely over its 10% SHI (Subsidized Housing Inventory) mark under 2010 census numbers and could be about 130 units short when 2020 data is finalized, though the Residence Inn apartment conversion will be helpful. 

And, median rent in town is close to the highest in the area, at $2,130. 

As to possible remedies, Lowder suggested, for example, liberalizing the ADU (accessory dwelling unit) rules to potentially allow residents to legally rent out a portion of their homes and changing the one acre minimum lot size.

Member Jayne Wellman thanked Lowder and NMCOG for their work. 

“I receive phone calls monthly from single parents, male and female, and from elderly women in particular who are losing their housing,” said Wellman. “And so I see these numbers play out.” 

Lowder said there are model ADU bylaws that the town could consider and that the most expedient way to use the town’s affordable housing trust fund is to buy down units.

“It’s really important to get in on the ground level,” for new developments, said Lowder, who also reminded the board that there is no longer an option for fee in lieu of affordable units.

Member Mark Kratman suggested a joint meeting with the Planning Board and Housing Authority, while Holland asked about family suite vacancies in town and any ability to provide a variance to allow these units to be rented. That’s not something the town can do, said Lowder.

“This is a very sobering picture in many respects, but also some of this is a byproduct of, we’re a desirable community to live in,” said Johnson. 

The Select Board has identified affordable housing as a priority and voted unanimously to endorse the plan. 

Lowder asks residents to take a survey by the end of next month to reach a consensus for an appropriate location for the MBTA overlay district. You can find that here. There are six proposed locations across various areas of town.

During the resident section, former Select Board member Anne Marie Stronach spoke on the Police Department personnel matter discussed later in the meeting. 

“It is my understanding that the town manager will be requesting your approval for an additional deputy chief position because one of the recommended candidates is the spouse of our top law enforcement officer,” said Stronach. She went on to affirm her support for TPD and acknowledge that both candidates are highly qualified, but expressed concern that the appointment will raise issues of unconscious bias and harmful unintended consequences. 

“In a professional working world, innate bias may inhibit the ability to make optimal and objective decisions under conditions of uncertainty,” said Stronach. “Some biases may be subconscious, and not even align with one’s conscious decisions and biases. Human nature is complicated.”

Stronach pointed out that the second deputy chief position was not in the budget approved at Town Meeting and questioned how the appointment will position Tewksbury.

“I’m wondering, will this promote Tewksbury’s trust, the public trust?” she asked. “How will this impact our town’s reputation and the public perception of Tewksbury?”

Johnson thanked Stronach for her remarks.

The board voted unanimously to reappoint Kevin Feeley as Town Counsel,with praise for his guidance and work for the town. Montuori said the town spends between $96,000 and $124,000 annually on legal services.

The board unanimously approved a race permit for Berna’s Great Legs 5K for Women, to be held on Thursday, July 20. The course begins at the Reilly Elementary School in Lowell at 7 p.m. and, while run mostly in Lowell, passes through Tewksbury at the intersection of Clark Road and Country Club Drive. 

Berna’s Great Legs, now in its 42nd year, is a fundraising event with proceeds going to House of Hope in Lowell. Those interested in the race can find more information here.

The Select Board formally appointed Katie Anderson as the School Committee designee to the Tewksbury Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. 

After approving minutes, the Town Manager discussed a proposal, referenced earlier by Stronach, to fund an additional deputy chief position and promote both Lieutenant Alysia Columbus, wife of TPD Chief Ryan Columbus, and Lieutenant Brian Farnum to replace Deputy Chief John Voto, who is retiring.

One deputy chief position will be for operations, one for administration. The town will eliminate a lieutenant position. Currently, Voto is the TPD’s sole deputy chief.

Under Tewksbury’s charter, the town manager makes appointments; the Select Board was not required to take any action, per town counsel. Because there may be a perception of a conflict of interest, however, Montuori brought his decision before the board, discussed the process used to select these two lieutenants for promotion, and explained that Deputy Chief Columbus will not report to Chief Columbus.

“The structure would have her report to Lieutenant Farnum on all matters pertaining to her,” said Montuori. “Any issue of significance would be dealt with by the Town Manager.”

Here is Montuori’s statement in its entirety:

Wellman asked Feeley a number of clarifying questions. Counsel stated that while the conflict of interest law prohibits any public employee from participating in a matter in which an immediate family member has a financial interest, the Town Manager and his team handled the testing, the application, the interviews and now the appointment without any involvement by Chief Columbus.  

“That, in my view, complies with the ethics law,” said Feeley, who added that the Chief will file a number of disclosures.

After further discussion and statements by Feeley and Johnson, Kratman made a motion to endorse the Town Manager’s recommendation, seconded by Holland. The motion passed with four votes in favor and Wellman abstaining. 

In committee reports, Wellman informed the board that the Elementary School Building Committee is in the final phases, noting that fixes are in the works for the HVAC, gym and stage floors and other fit-up items. See a summary of that ESBC meeting here. 

Kratman reminded residents that the Sumner Tunnel will be closed starting July 5 and suggested planning ahead for travel through Boston and taking public transportation. He also reminded residents of the Fourth of July celebration that will be held at Livingston St. on Monday, July 3 beginning at 8:30 a.m., with fireworks scheduled for 9:30 p.m.

Holland congratulated TMHS graduates.

Finally, Johnson reminded residents that the comment period for the eight retail marijuana proposals before the board is now open.

“We’ve had a couple of communications in the last few days,” he said. “I want to encourage and remind residents that that window remains open for the next few weeks. But as with all things, it will eventually close. So if you have a concern, or a comment about an application or the topic in general that you want this board to be made aware of, now is the time to make that known.”

The next meeting will be July 18, when the board will discuss retail cannabis licenses. Learn more about the proposals and how to reach the Select Board for comments.

Lorna is a U.S. Army veteran and 25-year resident of Tewksbury who has written for organizations ranging from the DIA to InformationWeek to a free weekly in New London that sent her to interview the pastry chef at Foxwoods.

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