Annual Town Meeting dominated the news in Reading in May. The members had significant discussions regarding $110,000 in the capital budget for the police department to purchase twenty-six tasers as a non-lethal method for restraining suspects. Town Meeting also voted 137-41-1 to add $80,000 to the municipal budget for the purpose of securing a public safety mental health professional. The Reading Post reported, “The amendment, made by Town Meeting member John Sasso, placed the budget increase in the wages line item for the Reading Coalition for Prevention and Support. This addition followed a significant discussion by Town Meeting about mental health issues in the context of the taser discussion. The additional $80,000 would come from the town’s free cash reserves.”
Ultimately, Town Meeting voted 159-9 to approve the $125,051,354 Fiscal Year 2022 budget during its fourth session. Of this amount, $49,695,998 was for the school department, and the remainder funded the municipal departments and the enterprise funds.
On May 18, the Select Board participated in a formal discussion with representatives of G.C. Fodera Contracting regarding plans for a 40R mixed-use building on the site of 18 Woburn Street. The previous structure on the lot, located on the southerly side of Woburn Street, burned down in 2006, and the 4,172 square foot lot has remained empty since that time.
The Community Planning and Development Commission (CPDC) referred the issue to the Select Board because of the requirement for the garage to be accessed through the adjacent municipal parking lot, which is under the Select Board’s jurisdiction. Though no vote was taken, members of the Select Board expressed reticence regarding this type of use for the municipal lot.
Outdoor dining returned to Reading in May as five local restaurants initially appeared before the CPDC to apply for new outdoor dining leases. These included the Mandarin Reading, Fuddruckers, Christopher’s Restaurant, and the newly minted Cal’s Creamery and Cal’s Brick Oven Pizza.
In June, the Board of Health made news as it voted 3-0 to rescind all COVID-19 related orders, dating back to March 11, 2021. This action came as a result of dropping case numbers in town in conjunction with the high percentage of persons who had been vaccinated for the virus.
The Reading Post reported, “Board of Health Vice-Chair Kerry Dunnell referred to the action as ‘the right way to approach this.’ Dunnell continued, praising all members of the board past and present for their handling of the pandemic. ‘[They] went at it with a problem-solving attitude,’ Dunnell exclaimed.”
At the same meeting, Community Services Director Kevin Bohmiller shared plans with the board for the reopening of the Pleasant Street Center. An open house was scheduled for June 15, with programming to begin on June 16. Bohmiller described June as a “slow opening.” Each day during the month consisted of only one-morning activity and one-afternoon activity. Bohmiller reported that activities scheduled as the center opened included chair yoga, tai chi, strength and balance, and art classes. Bohmiller also shared that a tent would be erected in the building’s patio area to allow for outdoor activities.
June also brought an announcement regarding the return of Porchfest on September 11 and the election of Thomas Wise as the new chair of the School Committee. The Reading Post reported, “The decision was made despite some concern that Wise will be running for reelection this coming year in addition to serving as chair. Unlike the Select Board, the School Committee has no policy governing this issue. However, outgoing chair Chuck Robinson shared that the committee has always followed a “loose rule that we try not to [have a person serve as chair in a reelection year].” Robinson, whose vote was the deciding vote to appoint Wise, also stated that, in his opinion, Wise had ‘paid his dues as Vice-Chair for the past two years’ and that he was ‘willing not to live by that [loose rule].’”
Residents in the Parker Road and Ash Street areas in Reading were awakened on July 3 to an advisory to shelter in place due to a developing incident involving armed suspects encountering police on interstate 95. By noon, the shelter in place orders had been lifted, and Reading Police reported that all eleven of the suspects involved in the armed encounter with police had been taken into police custody.
The School Committee addressed accusations of a possible ethics violation by School Committee member Shawn Brandt during its July 22 meeting. School Committee chair Thomas Wise read a prepared statement in which he stated that, in the opinion of counsel Colby Brunt, Brandt did not commit a Family Educational and Privacy Act (FERPA) violation when he was forwarded, by a third party, over 270 emails that had been generated through a public records request. Several of the emails mistakenly contained private, unredacted information about at least six students. Information from these emails was later published on a website.
During the meeting, Wise reviewed a timeline of events that led the committee to this point, beginning with the February public records request and offering “sincere apologies to students and families affected” by the mistake.
Wise continued, sharing that while Brandt acknowledged that he had not immediately notified then-Superintendent John Doherty upon discovering the unredacted information contained in the emails, “the committee of the whole did not conclude in respect to any ethical or policy violations.”
Wise acknowledged that the committee did note that Brandt should have informed Doherty that there was an accidental release of confidential student record information in his capacity as a School Committee member.
After calls for Brandt’s resignation were expressed by several parents, Wise continued to state that while the committee was “saddened and apologetic” about the situation, according to the Reading Home Rule Charter, [the School Committee] does not have the authority to remove a member.
At the conclusion of his report on August 10, Town Manager Robert LeLacheur surprised several members of the Select Board by offering his letter of resignation effective February 25, 2022. The Reading Post reported that LeLacheur did not cite a reason for his departure in his letter to the Select Board but did “thank everyone for their words of encouragement and thanks along the way, and wish you all good health and safety in the coming years.”
The Select Board began to review the possibility of purchasing five lots available on Grove Street, owned by the Meadowbrook Golf Club. LeLacheur explained that the club had a buyer for the lots and had negotiated a price. It was explained that the town had the option to purchase the lots for the price negotiated with the potential buyer, which was around $2.25 million.
Select Board chair Karen Herrick suggested that the land could be used to create an entrance gateway into the town forest if it was purchased. “It’s hard to walk away from land.” Select Board member Mark Dockser acknowledged, “But it is kind of pricey.” Ultimately, the board confirmed interest to continue to explore the opportunity.
The Select Board also voted 5-0 on August 10 to approve changes to its communications policy which would replace publication of emails sent to the board in their packet with a list of emails received and from whom. This had come about due to concerns regarding the amount and types of emails published in the packet. Select Board member Carlo Bacci supported the idea, stating that some members of the public had taken to “weaponizing” the packet. Bacci did, however, express concern that the lack of publication of emails in the packet might lead to a surge in public records requests that would have to be filled by town staff.
On August 19, by a vote of 2-4, the School Committee rejected the motion made by member Carla Nazzaro to rescind the June 21 vote appointing Brandt as vice-chair of the committee. Nazzaro offered her motion due to Brandt’s alleged lack of notification to the school district that he had been sent emails containing unredacted private student information. Nazzaro stated that she was no longer confident in the June 21 vote that elected Brandt to the role and offered the motion to rescind to “discourage any further action in our community.” Nazzaro and Wise were the only votes in favor of the motion.
The School Committee also voted 6-0 to approve a face-covering policy, requiring students, staff, and visitors to be masked while in school buildings during the fall. The committee committed to revisiting the subject as metrics regarding the spread of the COVID-19 virus were revised.
The Reading Post will continue to review 2021 in future articles.