WHITMAN – The Board of Selectmen have directed Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman look into who is responsible for issuing permits to use town property and what protocols should be followed by applicants.
The issue cropped up when Real estate agent Brittany Cavallo and mortgage agent Nicole Gifford attended the Sept. 28 meeting to seek approval for a fall carnival from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 30 at Memorial Field hosted by their business and sponsored by other businesses in town.
“We have this past history, but it’s not written down,” Heineman said. “I would strongly recommend to the board that there be a written policy that lays out exactly what the process is, particularly with respect to independently elected boards and commissions so that [people know] the Board of Selectmen is the policy-making body for the town.”
Heineman volunteered to draft a policy with the assistance of Selectman Randy LaMattina.
It had not been their first stop at Town Hall for an event permit.
Cavallo said she had initially sought approval from the Board of Health for an event on Oct. 23, where she was directed to go to the DPW Commissioners. The Recreation Commission and director were also asked for a permit, where they were asked to move their request to Oct. 30 due to scheduling conflicts at the field, and the women were granted use of the field, according to Heineman.
But it is the Board of Selectmen that is empowered to grant such permits.
Selectmen voted to approve the permit, pending state ethics officials and town counsel rulings on the ethical questions raised at the meeting. Town counsel reported to Heineman Monday that the Recreation Commission is the deciding body and will meet about it at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 6.
“Town Counsel’s opinion, in looking at past Town Meeting votes, the law, etc., is that the field is currently is under the jurisdiction — as a result of a Town Meeting vote in 1975 — of the Recreation Commission,” Heineman said. “No one’s been told to change their venue.”
Heineman said Oct. 4, that he recognized the frustration in the situation that he strongly believes a policy is needed to clarify things.
“In other words, the DPW, which granted a permit, really isn’t in line to grant permits for functions like this?” Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski asked Heineman.
“I wouldn’t say the DPW granted a permit,” Heineman replied. “They did go before them, and the DPW gave their blessing, so to speak. I don’t think I would call it a permit. What the Recreation Director issued, they do, in fact, call a permit … but it’s not a permit to hold the event, per se.”
Cavallo said they went to the Board of Health first, because she felt that COVID concerns warranted consulting that board first.
“If there’s something online that could tell us what the protocols are … I would have been here first,” she said. “It was not meant to circumvent any type of protocol.”
Heineman added that events held at Whitman Park require DPW approval, but events on other town-owned lands can come under the purview of the Board of Selectmen.
Selectman Randy LaMattina strenuously objected to approving the permit because, he argued it was intended to market a private business, and that the women had included the Whitman Food Pantry as a last-minute beneficiary.
“I’m kind of upset at the process,” LaMattina said. “The DPW Commissioners have no authority to grant [permits to] events like this.”
He added that the Recreation Commission basically sent an email to them, basically telling them what they had approved and that, so far as he is aware, that permit has not been signed by the Recreation Commission.
“They have not voted on this,” he said, largely because a quorum of members had not been available.
Selectman Brian Bezanson asked for a brief overview of the carnival event.
“Originally the game plan was to have [attractions] like bouncy houses, games – everything free to the public,” Cavallo said.
But after speaking with the Recreation Commission and obtaining the rider on their insurance policy that was required, they scaled back the games and have rented lawn games from Busy Bee Jumpers in Whitman, and have contracted with four food trucks and a local woman who runs a fully-licensed bakery – Sweet Standards – from her home. All food vendors will have to be inspected and license before they participate, Cavallo said. A raffle intended to go to the Whitman Food Pantry for the holidays will also be included.
“I personally have an issue with this, because up until right now, there’s nothing that we received that said anything about a charity being involved,” LaMattina said. “It seems like a promotional event.”
He said, while it sounds like a great event, “I don’t know if we’re in the promotion for private business business, letting town services be used for that.”
LaMattina suggested it could present an ethical problem. To address that concern, Selectman Justin Evans suggested consulting the state Ethics Commission.
Kowalski said he favored approving the one event and then placing a hold on others “until we get our own act together” as a town. Bezanson suggested the board’s approval be contingent on a clean report from the Ethics Commission, and LaMattina amended that to request a ruling from Whitman’s town counsel, as well.
“I personally have an issue with this, because up until right now, there’s nothing that we’ve received that said anything about a charity being involved,” LaMattina said. “It seems like a promotional event.”
One problem with that, he said, could be “cutting the legs off” from local community charities like Dollars for Scholars.
Cavallo said she did not understand how the event involves a cost to the town if the women’s businesses were paying for the event costs and rented the field. She said they had held a movie night for the community this summer that was not questioned. LaMattina said there was an issue with that, as well.
But as to costs for the town, he said they had not paid a fee to the Recreation Department, the cost for detail officers and trash pickup.
“An event like this, although you might not see it, does cost the town money,” he said.
Cavallo said no Recreation fee had been asked for and they have spoken to police about footing the bill for detail officers.
LaMattina compared the plans to those of the old WinterFest Committee, which, at no point, involved any self-promotion.
Cavallo said they have approached all businesses in the town center and are gaining nothing except exposure.
“That’s what this event is about, bringing community together,” she said.
“We’re in the process of getting the businesses to donate,” said Gifford, who used to be an event planner. “ … I feel like, after COVID, everyone’s looking for things like this. Everyone’s missing community.”