Somerset seeing exodus of town officials
'People are nasty in this town," says departing building inspector
SOMERSET, a South Coast town caught in the spin cycle of a national debate over energy and climate, is now facing an exodus of municipal officials.
Over the last three months, the police chief was replaced, the town planner was let go, and the town manager announced his retirement. The building inspector says he left last week to take a job elsewhere before he was terminated. He says the town’s politics is toxic, with his car being vandalized and a package being delivered to his home filled with off-color glitter.
All of the departures coincide with a political makeover of the town and its Board of Selectmen that was triggered by outrage over the management of Brayton Point, a massive property on the Taunton River that used to be home to one of New England’s largest coal-fired power plants.
The power plant shut down in 2017 and was then torn down by Commercial Development Inc. of St. Louis, which viewed the property, with its deepwater port and 300-plus acres of open space, as an ideal staging area for the emerging offshore wind industry. The Trump administration, however, stalled development of offshore wind for several years and the developer was left with an empty property earning no money. So the company leased some of the space to scrap metal and road salt companies.
Lorne Lawless won a seat in 2020, Allen Smith won in April, and Kathy Souza won a special election in July. Souza filled a seat vacated by Holly McNamara, who resigned her position shortly after Smith’s election victory, deciding not to serve her entire term. McNamara said she could no longer stand “the hate and venom” that had spread throughout the community.
Paul Boucher, the town’s building inspector, left at the end of last week saying he was tired of all the infighting. “I’m going to a place where they want me,” Boucher said. “People are nasty in this town.”
Boucher was neck deep in controversy over the scrap metal operation. Many members of Save our Bay accused him of helping Commercial Development Inc. launch its scrap metal operation and keeping it going after complaints from neighbors mounted. While Save Our Bay insists the neighborhoods around Brayton Point are plagued by dust and noise, Boucher said noise and dust monitoring stations turned up almost no violations of town restrictions on the facility.
Boucher said he would often drive down to Brayton Point to monitor the loading of scrap metal on to the ship, but stopped doing it after residents began sprinkling nails and other debris in the area where he parked. He said a nail punctured one of his tires and one neighborhood resident accosted him while he was in his car.
He also received at home a spring-loaded container that, when opened, spewed glitter in the shape of penises. The matter was referred to police, and Boucher says the man who sent the container was identified but no action was ever taken against him.
Boucher said city officials advised him to stay quiet and remain neutral in the controversy over Brayton Point. “Right now it’s a big political football,” he said. “It’s a nightmare.”
Richard Brown, the town manager, said he is retiring in late November. He said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on the atmosphere in the town, but noted he is in his late 60s and has a new grandchild. “It’s time for me to retire,” he said.
Police chief George McNeil was told in April his contract would not be renewed after seven years on the job. No reason was given, and he was eventually replaced by another member of the force, Todd Costa.
Dozens of people spoke out in support of McNeil at a Board of Selectmen meeting. One of his supporters was McNamara, the Select Board member who resigned in April citing all the “hate and venom” in the community. “This is a personal vendetta. I know more than the public does and that’s all I’ll say,” she said, according to the Herald News.
The Board of Selectmen recently wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker to enlist his help in shutting down the scrap metal operation. The nearby town of Swansea has also written a letter to the governor making the same demand.
Baker so far appears to be steering clear of the controversy, but Attorney General Maura Healey’s office has been actively investigating alleged environmental issues at Brayton Point.
Lawless, the chair of the Board of Selectmen, could not be reached for comment.
Souza said the recent departures of city officials are random, unrelated acts and not part of any bid to clean house. “We’re a new board with a fresh new set of eyes on everything in town,” she said.Smith said he met recently with both Durfee and Boucher. He said he told Boucher, the building commissioner who departed last week, that he had no problem with his work and had no plans to remove him. He said he told Durfee, the town planner, it was necessary to eliminate her position because the town is running low on cash with tax revenues from the coal-fired power plant no longer coming in. He also said millions of dollars in support from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative are no longer available.
“I can speak for Allen Smith, one member of the board,” Smith said. “This is a 100 percent financial decision.”