Express staff reports
With the start of a new year, we take a last look back at 2018 with our picks for the top 10 local news stories of the year.
Whitman’s financial concerns took an early place on the front burner, remaining there for the year and into the foreseeable future as town officials seek answers to the problem.
The Whitman Board of Selectmen began 2018 expressing a measure of support for a suggested long-range budget planning strategy to identify municipal priorities and revenue sources on Tuesday, Jan. 9.
Former Finance Committee member Shawn Kain presented his proposal for a five-year plan at the meeting, and, as the year progressed a long-range capital needs plan was also begun by that committee.
“It’s not a bad idea to look at things from a different viewpoint and come up with a plan,” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski said in January 2018. “Before you set up goals and objectives, what you have to have is a consideration of what you value as a town … what kind of town do we want to be?”
Talks on the fiscal 2020 budget began in earnest after the June annual Town Election.
By year’s end a Community Assessment Survey, was being conducted with the assistance of Bridgewater State University in an effort to determine the answer to Kowalski’s question, was expected to be ready for presentation to Selectmen and the public this month.
The W-H School budget being a big portion of the budget concern, received some long-range aid from Hanson’s decision at a February special Town Meeting to close Maquan School in an effort to save money. In April, Whitman Selectmen met with the Finance Committee to review what Town Administrator Frank Lynam called “what-if” scenarios. Tax receipts, benefitting a bit from a 50-cent per thousand increase solves the part of problem for the current fiscal year, but concerns about the Fiscal 2020 school budget, to be unveiled in February 2018, persist. Lynam said the town will take a “serious look” at the $381,357 cost of non-mandated busing, including trimming the town’s subsidy or instituting a user fee.
Lynam and Selectman Scott Lambiase reported to the Board of Selectmen Tuesday, Nov. 20 on progress with the fiscal 2020 budget. Lynam said he has begun receiving departmental budget proposals including 3-percent and 6-percent budget cuts, to help forecast the effects if such cuts are needed as the town addressed the current levy limit and town financial obligations.
The School Department, too, got down to work on a 2020 budget early, providing an early glimpse of its $53.4 level-service budget in December and outlining costs involved in operating each of the district’s schools. The official rollout, expected to be up $2.9 million for level services, comes next month.
2. Marijuana bylaws
Whitman voters in a special Town Meeting March 12, moved forward a protective zoning bylaw prohibiting all types of non-medical marijuana establishments in town by an 81 percent to 19-percent margin. The issue had to then pass a special Town Election Saturday, March 17 — during which residents voted nearly two-to-one in favor of a protective zoning bylaw banning all forms of recreational marijuana sales in Whitman. The vote was 543 supporting the bylaw and 307 against the ban with 850 registered voters casting ballots.
Hanson also tackled the difficult task of deciding on marijuana control bylaws, with voters grudgingly approving a zoning bylaw governing marijuana sales in town at the May Town Meeting, with an eye toward future amendments and/or a referendum and also approved a 3-percent sales tax on marijuana products. Marijuana establishment bylaws were required after state voters opted to legalize recreational use in 2016, but former Selectman David Soper wanted to know how Hanson failed to be among 189 communities restricting it or the 25 communities that otherwise regulate it.
A Planning Board-supported effort to pass a moratorium on marijuana establishments was defeated at Hanson Town Meeting, and Hanson was among the state communities voting yes to recreational marijuana in 2016, selectmen pointed out.
In June, Hanson Selectmen approved the placement of a local-control retail marijuana bylaw, banning the sale of cannabis, before October’s special Town Meeting as well as a referendum ballot.
Selectmen declined to share their own personal opinions on the issue as irrelevant. Voters at that special Town Meeting Monday, Oct. 1 narrowly approved an article amending the General Bylaws in order to prohibit the retail sale of recreational cannabis products, but failed to achieve the two-thirds majority required by a second article to amend the town’s Zoning Bylaws.
Both would appear on a Nov. 6 town ballot, but the zoning question is effectively moot — leaving the town to depend on a bylaw approved in May restricting retail marijuana businesses to an overlay district with frontage on Route 27/ Main Street and Franklin Street.
On Nov. 6, Hanson narrowly voted to support two town ballot questions — 2,641 Yes to 2,354 No on Question 1 and 2,630 Yes to 2,357 No on Question 2 — that prohibit retail cannabis businesses in town.
3. Diehl challenges Warren
Proclaiming it “our moment” and staking out the theme that U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren “has let us down,” state Rep. Geoffrey Diehl greeted supporters at the Whitman VFW Tuesday, Sept. 5 as he basked in his Republican primary win.
His margin of victory was 54.8 percent of the vote compared to 27 percent for John Kingston and 18.1 percent for Beth Lindstrom.
“While Warren has spent the last six years building a national political profile for herself, I’ve been fighting for you, and most importantly, listening to you,” Diehl said.
Meanwhile, the race to fill the state representative seat Diehl is vacating was an all-Abington contest as former Selectman Alex Bezanson staved off a challenge from Whitman union advocate Kevin Higgins to face Plymouth County DA’s office victim advocate Alyson Sullivan for the Nov. 6 general election.
The door to the U.S. Senate may have closed on Diehl in November, but the former state representative says he is now searching for his window to the next opportunity.
Statewide, Warren held a 60-36 margin of victory over Diehl based on unofficial results with Independent Shiva Ayyadurai taking about 3 percent of the votes cast. Locally, the picture was a mirror image for Warren and Diehl, as the Whitman Republican took his hometown of Whitman by a 3,888 to 2,641 margin of 6,776 votes cast. Hanson voters went for Diehl by a larger margin — 3,104 to 1,909 for Warren.
“We left no stone unturned,” Diehl said to supporters Nov. 6. “And I know I gave it my all, but I also know that you gave it your all.” He quoted a 19th-Century philosopher’s dictum that, “If you learn from a loss, you really haven’t lost.” Diehl said he was very glad to have the chance to debate Warren and talk about the issues.
Sullivan was elected to fill Diehl’s seat in November.
4. Rehab release bill
In August, Massachusetts took another “step in the right direction” in the fight against the opioid addiction epidemic with the success of legislation to keep families apprised of early releases from rehab commitments.
Its success is largely due to one family’s resolve to save another family from the pain of losing a loved one to an overdose.
“You have to stay persistent,” former Hanson Selectman David Soper said. “That’s what this story is all about persistence and luck and good people.”
Soper is the uncle of over-dose victim Stephen Berry, who became addicted to opioids after oxycontin was prescribed for him to deal with pain following a dirt bike accident.
An amendment to the state’s Section 35 involuntary commitment law — requiring that a family member/petitioner is notified of any early release from the program sponsored by Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, and state Sen. Viriato DeMacedo, R-Plymouth, has been included in the opioid bill that Gov. Charlie Baker later signed.
For Soper, the news came as a bittersweet victory after months of work toward saving another family from his own anguish.
“As you can imagine David was very passionate about making sure that this doesn’t happen to another family like happened to them,” DeMacedo said Monday, Aug. 6. “I’m honored to have participated in a small way in getting this amendment passed so this won’t happen to another family.”
Soper credited DeMacedo, Josh Cutler, D-Duxbury, and Cruz for their work in support of the change, particularly DeMacedo after the bill had previously died in House Committee.
5. JJ’s Pub fire
A three-alarm fire at the vacant JJ’s Pub on Thursday, July 5 was deemed suspicious by state and local public safety officials. Firefighters from several area communities assisted Hanson Fire Department in battling a three-alarm fire in a vacant building. No injuries were reported, but two firefighters were transported to the hospital for treatment of heat-related illness.
National Grid shut off power to the area to permit firefighters to safely work. Nearly 200 customers were affected by the shut-off.
Alfred Russo, 75, was arrested in late August on arson charges in the burning of the abandoned J.J’s Pub, 16 Liberty Street, in Hanson, and later indicted along with two new co-conspirators, Patricia Harrison, 59, and Wayne Cummings, 49, all of Buzzards Bay.
According to a statement by District Attorney Timothy Cruz, Russo was indicted on one count of burning of a dwelling and two counts of arson causing injuries to a firefighter. Harrison and Cummings were each indicted on one count of burning of a building.
The Plymouth County Grand Jury returned the indictments on Friday, Sept. 28. By November, Hanson officials were losing patience with the continuing presence of the pile of debris left from the fire.
6. Cable Access/FCC
Proposed FCC rule changes to preempt local government from regulating or imposing fees related to noncable services provided by cable companies, among other provisions, have raised alarm among both local access providers and town officials.
The changes would allow cable operators to treat funding for cable-related costs as “in-kind” donations, allowing them to deduct an undefined amount from monies that traditionally have gone to community media. This rule change would eliminate a major source of funding from WHCA and could result in community media centers closing their doors in every community across the country.
“I think it’s very shortsighted,” said Whitman Hanson Community Access TV Executive Director Eric Dresser.
“What we do here — and what access centers across the state do — is hyper-local, and it’s essential,” WHCATV Access Operations Coordinator Kevin Tocci says. “It is your source if you want to know what’s going on with local government … we provide video on demand on YouTube.”
Local public, educational and government (PEG) access programming is funded by franchising through the local community’s issuing authority — generally the board of selectmen — with a rate paid to cover the “burden of taking up space on [utility] poles” via the cable portion of the cable company’s income.
Both select boards and town administrators in Whitman and Hanson have filed letters with the FCC against the proposal. Both trade organizations to which WHCA-TV belongs — MassAccess, and the Alliance for Community Media on the federal level have also filed lengthy comments against the proposal, citing several legal precedents.
The deadline for that filing was midnight, Thursday, Nov. 15. The deadline for reply comments was midnight, Friday, Dec. 14.
Those comments would likely be limited to responses to previously filed comments.
7. March storms
The month really did roar in like a lion in 2018 with three major winter storms in 10 days. Historic winter storm Riley battered the region for 72 hours beginning March 2, and brought a new word — bombogenisis, a meteorological term for intense strengthening — into daily conversation. Winds were recorded as high as 70 mph, and higher closer to the shoreline. Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno had cautioned ahead of the storm that damaged and unhealthy trees could fall during the storm.
Hanson police and fire responded to an urgent tree-down call with three cars trapped with their occupants still inside at 680 Liberty St., just before 7 p.m. Friday near Gorwin Drive.
Whitman was dispatched to 130 calls Friday, March 2 through Tuesday night, 90 percent of them storm-related, said Grenno, who estimated the Police Department responded to between 150 and 160 calls in that period. Trees had fallen on several homes in Whitman.
Hanson Fire/Rescue responded to 162 storm-related calls from 7 p.m., Friday through 7 p.m. Monday. They were also involved in assisting with 20 medical calls, offered EMS support two times and received EMS support on mutual aid for three calls.
8. Fire promotions
In May, Hanson Fire Deputy Chief Robert O’Brien Jr., was officially sworn in at the Tuesday, May 1 meeting of the Board of Selectmen. Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., noted that former Chief Peter Huska, who gave both he and O’Brien their start on the department, was in attendance. The deputy chief position had been vacant for several years, Thompson said, adding that call volume has increased in recent years. O’Brien has been working as deputy chief since March 5.
Before a hall filled with family, friends, Whitman officials and dozens of fellow fire chiefs, Whitman Fire Chief Timothy Grenno was sworn in as president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of Massachusetts (FCAM) during ceremonies at Bridgewater State Univerity on Tuesday, May 15.
Grenno pledged to work closely with the firefighters’ union as well as state officials to ensure firefighters’ safety and well-being.
After taking his oath, administered by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Grenno noted the date coincided with Peace Officer
“At the end of the day, we are all the fire service,” he said. “We may disagree at times on the fundamentals of some things, but in the end our mission creed is the same: To see that everybody goes home at the end of their shifts.”
He also pledged to work to restore funding for training, mental health services for stress-related issues such as PTSD, fire safety programs to educate the public and for legislation to provide protection from and treatment for work-related cancers.
The Hanson Board of Selectmen welcomed the town’s first female fire officer Tuesday, June 19 with the official swearing-in of Lt. Sherilyn Mullin, who has been working in that capacity since May 8. Lt. Mullin fills the vacancy created when Deputy Chief O’Brien was promoted to that rank.
9. Szymaniak takes the helm at W-H
Former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner announced her planned retirement early enough to give the School Committee time to find the right successor. The committee’s interviews with the three superintendent finalists, selected by a screening subcommittee, were held Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018 in open session at the W-H library. A search panel had been formed in January, consisting of about a dozen people, including School Committee members, school council members, principals and parents.
The finalists were: Sharon Schools Assistant Superintendent for Information Systems and Administration John M. Marcus, a North Easton resident; Lincoln (R.I.) High School Principal Kevin J. McNamara of Greenville, R.I.; and WHRHS Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak of Pembroke.
Szymaniak was the School Committee’s unanimous choice to become the school district’s new superintendent after final interviews were conducted in a special meeting Thursday, Feb. 15.
“The search committee put a tremendous amount of time into winnowing down what started out as a 19-candidate pool of people,” said by School Committee Chairman Bob Hayes in thanking them for their work to kick-off the interviews. “We had a great mix of teachers, union people, principals, a student, School Committee members, parents at-large and they put a lot of time in.”
With the retirement of former Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Gilbert-Whitner at the end of June, the selection of then-WHRHS Principal Jeffrey Szymaniak to succeed her, the hiring of then-Whitman Middle School Principal George Ferro to fill the vacant Assistant Superintendent position and the departure of two elementary school principals for new jobs, meant three new principals, and new assistant principals at WMS and Hanson’s Indian Head School. Former Assistant Principal Michael Grable was appointed principal of the school in June.
At South Shore Tech, retiring principal Margaret Dutch was succeeded by Assistant Principal Mark Aubrey.
10. Hanson’s 200th party plans
Next year, the South Shore will have a lot to celebrate.
Plymouth will be observing 400 years since the arrival of the Pilgrims in the New World. Closer to home, Hanson will also be celebrating anniversary in 2020 — the bicentennial of the town’s founding — and plans are already under way.
Joshua Singer, of Edward Jones Investments, who chairs the Hanson Business Network and is a member of the Hanson 200 Committee, recently updated the Board of Selectmen on the committee’s work and offered a glimpse of the coming celebration. He said they will keep the board, and town, updated as definitive dates and plans are set.
“We are currently very much in the planning stage,” Singer told Selectmen on Tuesday, April 3. “We are starting our actual calendar of events for the 200th anniversary. We’re focusing on three key areas right now.”
Those areas of focus are fundraising for events; promotion and planning. A logo design contest will be used as a way to include Hanson student artists in the planning at both the middle school and high school.