BRAINTREE—It’s easy to get lost in the details of the 17-month political melodrama that rocked town hall here. There was, for instance, the town administrator secretly getting paid more than town meeting authorized; the misuse of town money, cars, and cellular phones; the threats and intimidation of municipal employees and residents by town officials; a grassroots campaign to recall two selectmen; the lawsuit; and the shredding of town documents. But, really, this tale is about a few citizens standing up and holding public officials accountable for their actions. And winning.
Sonya “Sunny” Shaw and Sandra Baler-Segal aren’t the most likely pair of rabble-rousers. Shaw is a tall, bespectacled brunette and Baler-Segal is petite with curly red hair. Both are educators; Shaw teaches remedial math and reading to elementary school children in Braintree, and Baler-Segal works in special education for the Boston public schools. Both are longtime town meeting members and past presidents of the Braintree chapter of the League of Women Voters—not a group known for its fiery activism. But both were plenty outraged when, in 1997, they found out about the sweetheart deal the town’s new executive secretary had cut with the Board of Selectmen.
In violation of town bylaws, his contract provided William Sweeney an annual salary of $91,692—$13,000 more than appropriated by town meeting and $21,000 above the $70,355 posted for the job. The agreement gave Sweeney five weeks paid vacation (two weeks more than standard) and three weeks paid sick leave. It allowed him to work any five out of seven days. The contract had been signed in a closed executive session without any public discussion.
Something was rotten in Braintree. The town was supposed to be governed by representative town meeting, a five-member Board of Selectmen, and an executive secretary appointed by the selectmen to carry out the will of the elected bodies. But it seemed that the governance structure had been turned upside down. The selectmen, says Shaw, “had overstepped their authority and their mandate and had an inappropriate relationship with their employee, Sweeney…He, in fact, was their boss. He controlled them.”
Shaw and Baler-Segal, among other hardy Braintree citizens, would not stand for it. The rebellion they led ultimately swept Sweeney and his selectmen cronies out of office and inspired a drive to restructure town government. Little did they know what a soap opera it would become along the way.
Braintree seems a big town for such two-bit shenanigans. At just under 35,000 residents, it’s the third most populous town on the South Shore, after Weymouth and Plymouth (not counting the cities of Quincy and Brockton). Located a dozen miles south of Boston, at the divide of Route 3 and I-93, Braintree is not only the birthplace of two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock but the home today of the enormous South Shore Plaza shopping mall.
But there was, in Braintree, a touch of Peyton Place, as well. And no one made more of it than Bill Sweeney. He had been the town’s assistant accountant for several years, managing to score both a town car and cell phone. A smooth operator, Sweeney developed cozy relationships with some members of the Board of Selectmen, in part by working on their election campaigns. Sweeney became inseparable from selectman Dorothy O’Flaherty Nedelman. Since both Nedelman and Sweeney were married, and not to each other, that set Braintree tongues wagging.
Sweeney’s courtship of the selectmen paid off in the summer of 1997, when the position of executive secretary was posted in town hall for just one day, and Sweeney alone was interviewed for the job.
Copies of Sweeney’s contract were eventually smuggled out of town hall, and his terms of employment became a hot topic at the autumn meetings of the League of Women Voters in Braintree. On December 4, the League wrote a letter to the Board of Selectmen questioning Sweeney’s contract—and made sure local newspapers got copies. That was the first salvo in what was to be a long, ugly battle.
“When the League first made their inquiries,” says Baler-Segal, the selectmen “really stonewalled us. When [their responses] finally arrived, they were non-answers.” In her mind, that behavior constituted “a major cover-up.”
Meanwhile, Braintree citizens got busy. Joining forces with League members, about two dozen residents, some of whom had never before been involved in politics, formed the Committee for Responsible Government.
The battle moved to town meeting, which, in May 1998, voted to cut off funding for Sweeney’s salary. Paycheck or not, Sweeney continued to go to his town hall office (or not) and tool around in a Crown Victoria that never did bear the required town seal. Meanwhile, the selectmen dug in their heels, admitting nothing improper in Sweeney’s contract, and decided to sue the town to get Sweeney his pay—a key error, says Shaw.
For many people in Braintree, the town suing itself was the last straw. The Committee for Responsible Government and other residents began a recall campaign to remove Nedelman and Carl Vitagliano, another selectman and Sweeney supporter, in an October 1998 election. That push failed because of a typographical error on the signature petitions. A second recall drive was dropped when it became clear that time was getting close to the next regular town election.
But the tide had clearly swung in favor of the grassroots insurgents. Early in 1999, Sweeney agreed to give up his post in exchange for a $200,000 buyout package. And in April, the two targeted selectmen were voted out of office. “In the long run,” says Baler-Segal, “this election truly vindicated our position in a way that a recall might’ve never done.” Nedelman and Vitagliano, she says, were “thoroughly and gloriously defeated.”
The next month, town meeting ordered the town moderator to set up a search committee of officials and citizens in order to find a new executive secretary. From a field of more than 30 candidates winnowed down to four by the search committee, the Board of Selectman chose Hector Rivera, then city manager in Falls Church, Virginia, outside Washington, DC. After just weeks on the job, Rivera earned high marks from Shaw: “He’s an extremely professional, knowledgeable man.” And town hall is a different place, Shaw says. “In the selectmen’s office, you can ask a question, ask for information, without hearing the words, ‘I have to speak to Mr. Sweeney,’” she notes. “You now have access to town government.”
The battle over Sweeney made some people think about a broader restructuring of town government. In October, a special town meeting considered a proposal, modeled on towns like Framingham and Danvers, to replace the executive secretary with a town manager. Appointed by a four-fifths vote of the selectmen, the manager would appoint the heads of town departments, such as finance or water and sewer. Currently, those departments are overseen by boards of unpaid elected officials, who appoint the managers beneath them.
The boards themselves have had their own share of trouble recently. A member of the health board resigned after being arrested for possession of heroin. And harassment allegations flew back and forth between another health board member, Patricia Toomey, and Thomas Gecewicz, the director of the health department, before the board voted Gecewicz out of office last fall. Critics such as Anthony Mollica, a 35-year town meeting member and former selectman who chaired the committee that developed the new town-governance proposal, say the boards have made the departments into little fiefdoms that are unaccountable to anyone. “Each one goes its own way,” says Mollica. “It’s not like a ship where you have one captain.”
But town meeting voted down the reorganization. Town meeting members were not prepared to make such a sweeping change. And Sweeney’s legacy still haunts some citizens. Some members of town meeting were apparently fearful of concentrating even more power in the hands of an appointed town manager. But both Baler-Segal and Shaw, who have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, say some reorganization of town government is inevitable. They say it’s just going to have to happen “piecemeal.”
Over a pizza lunch on a Saturday last fall, Shaw mentions a quote from the late anthropologist Margaret Mead that Shaw used in one of the many letters she wrote to Braintree voters and newspapers during this long nightmare: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
That, says Shaw with satisfaction, is exactly what happened in Braintree.
Millicent Lawton, formerly a reporter for Education Week, is a freelance writer in Newton.