2021 in Review: January – February

As the calendar moved from 2020 to 2021, many people anticipated a new year with expanding recovery from the pandemic that suspended much of life in Reading during 2020. Some of this hopefulness dissipated as a riot at the United States Capitol Building on January 6 raised concerns for some about the very solidity of our democracy itself. In Reading, response to this event also raised concerns.

Select Board January 2021

As the Reading Post reported, “By a vote of 4-0-1, the Select Board approved a resolution, drafted by member Vanessa Alvarado, condemning the violence that occurred at the United States Capitol building two weeks ago. Chair Mark Dockser referred to the violence as ‘a challenge to democracy in its basic form.’ Select Board member Anne Landry noted that this particular violent action ‘Hits close to home because it was an assault on elected officials.’ Dockser continued, affirming the resolution’s language, ‘It states what desperately needs to be stated.’ The Post also reported, “Member Carlo Bacci, who abstained from voting, stated that while he was ‘disgusted’ by the events that occurred in Washington, D.C. on January 6, he did not believe it is the board’s place to offer commentary on national politics. ‘If we are going to pick and choose which violence to condemn, it is a slippery slope.’ Bacci declared.”

There was also reaction to a video shared by some members of the school community in town regarding the events in Washington. The Post reported, “[The Select Board vote] was preceded by a statement from Town Manager Robert LeLacheur which he called a “companion” statement to what was shared by Superintendent John Doherty last Thursday. LeLacheur accepted full responsibility for comments made by employees of the town regarding a video shared by the school district with parents while calling for continued discussion on issues as friends and neighbors. Doherty apologized for the “lack of vetting” of the video in his statement last week. Referring to the community as a “family,” LeLacheur lamented that our own “family is creating problems, not solving them.”

The Select Board spent much of January working on the Fiscal Year 2022 budget and looking at parking concerns, establishing the Parking Advisory and Recommendation Committee (PARC) to study downtown parking issues.

The School Committee continued its search for a new superintendent, announcing finalists on January 29. The committee approved the $49,695,998 Superintendent’s Recommended Fiscal Year 2022 budget on January 25. Before the vote, Superintendent John Doherty thanked his entire team who worked on the budget, which School Committee Chair Chuck Robinson called “thoughtful and responsible.” Robinson continued, stating that the budget “addresses and supports the needs of the children of Reading.”

Issues with the hybrid model used at RMHS were also a concern. The Reading Post reported, “Several School Committee members expressed concern to Superintendent John Doherty over the ‘two-day on, two-day live stream hybrid model currently being used at the high school. While praising the rigor of the remote learning portion of the model, Member Thomas Wise stated, ‘My concern is about the emotional health of the students.’ Member Erin Gaffen continued, ‘I believe our remote learning is a strong platform, but we need to get our high schoolers in school more.’ Member Carla Nazzaro agreed, ‘We made a commitment to get students in full hybrid.’”

The Select Board opened February, considering plans for the Birch Meadow Complex. The northernmost zone would include a new artificial turf field behind Coolidge Middle School that combines two softball fields with one soccer/lacrosse field. Parking at the former site of the Imagination Station will be formalized with improved drainage and improvements to the wetlands that include the Aberjona River.

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The “heart of the site” will have a new artificial turf field with two softball fields and one soccer field with lighting, batting cages, team areas, and storage. A new restroom building with a pavilion for concessions is also planned for the complex’s center, with a new lacrosse wall built nearby. The existing playground would be re-created with a larger footprint; eight pickleball courts and two basketball courts would also be added. An improved system of lighted paths would be added for passive recreation, which would be highlighted by a new “central spine” that would connect Birch Meadow Drive to the RISE parking lot.

The Reading Post reported on February 2 that the Police Department had apprehended suspected mail thieves. “On Monday, Feb. 1, at approximately 12:50 a.m., a Reading Police officer on patrol on Haven Street near the post office observed a red minivan parked alongside the street with its engine running. The officer followed the vehicle onto Main Street as it left the area and observed it as it crossed the double yellow lines. When the officer activated his emergency lights to initiate a traffic stop on Walkers Brook Drive, the vehicle first slowed and then abruptly accelerated and eventually led the officer onto I-95 southbound. Following the arrival of additional officers, Reading Police secured the scene and initiated an on-scene investigation with the assistance of the Massachusetts State Police. During the investigation, officers observed what they later determined was 200 pieces of mail on the front passenger side floorboard of the vehicle. Many of the envelopes contained return addresses in Reading. Scattered among the mail were several open envelopes and checks.”

The School Committee made news in February by appointing Dr. Thomas Milachewski as the new superintendent of schools. The Post reported, “Members of the committee were exuberant in their praise of Milaschewski. All five members who voted in favor of him referred to the site visits as what separated him from the other two finalists. School Committee member Tom Wise stated that ‘Leadership oozes from him.’ Chair Chuck Robinson agreed, adding that his ‘level of energy is off the charts.’ Member Shawn Brandt commented, ‘I’ve never heard more effusive praise for a candidate.’”

The Select Board announced on February 24 that the town was subject to a civil lawsuit resulting from an officer-involved shooting on February 3, 2018. This incident was investigated by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, who requested that a judicial inquest be conducted. Subsequently, the case was presented to a grand jury, and the officer was charged with manslaughter. The case proceeded in the Superior Court. In February, the board also considered use of the former Daniels House on Middlesex Avenue, plans for Walkers Brook Drive, and updated plans for the Auburn Street water tower project.

The Police Department also announced the promotion of Lt. Christine Amendola to Deputy Chief on February 22. Amendola is the highest-ranking woman in department history. “Christine earned this promotion based on her distinguished service in the military, her outstanding contributions as a member of the department, and her strong performance in the selection process where she was a unanimous choice,” said LeLacheur.

Finally, the April 6, 2021, local election began to take shape as Town Clerk Laura Gemme announced the candidates for town-wide offices. There were two candidates for one seat on the Select Board; incumbent Vanessa Alvarado of Mount Vernon Street sought reelection to the board while challenging her was Christopher Haley of Tennyson Road. Three candidates emerged for the two three-year seats on the School Committee. Incumbent Shawn Brandt of Franklin Street sought reelection with former short-term School Committee member Geoffrey Coram of Ridge Road and Sarah McLaughlin of South Street, also running for seats on the committee.

There were three candidates for the two available seats on the Library Board of Trustees. Newcomers Monique Gnanaratnam of Main Street and Harry Lomas of Winter Street challenged incumbent Andrew Grimes of Oak Street for the positions on the board. Four candidates emerged for two seats on the Reading Municipal Light Department Board of Commissioners. Incumbent John Stempeck of Avalon Road sought reelection to the board. He was challenged by Marlena Bita of Strawberry Hill Lane and James Satterthwaite of Hunt Street. A fourth candidate for RMLD Commissioner, Alison Friedmann, withdrew her name from the race. According to town clerk Laura Gemme her name still appeared on the ballot because of a timing issue.

The Reading Post will continue with more year in review coverage as the week progresses.

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