SOUTHWICK — Three Southwick committee members were shocked to find out that they had not been reappointed to their respective boards Tuesday.
Maryssa Cook-Obregon of the Agricultural Commission and Conservation Commission, Dennis Clark of the Agricultural Commission, and Chris Pratt, chair of the Conservation Commission, were all left off the list of reappointments voted during the Select Board meeting Sept. 27. Rose Hanna and Kevin Solek were appointed to one-year terms on the Conservation Commission and Bob Mucha was appointed to a one-year term on the Agricultural Commission in their places.
All three of the former commissioners accused the Select Board of excluding them from reappointments as political retaliation for various expressions of opinions on town policy that each of them had made over the past year.
Cook-Obregon said that Select Board Vice Chair Russell Fox, who was acting as chair during the Sept. 27 meeting in the absence of Joseph Deedy, told her specifically that she was being removed from both commissions because of her activism opposing the Carvana project during the spring and summer, and for an unofficial meeting that she organized for the Agricultural Commission to oppose Carvana when a scheduled meeting was abruptly canceled.
She said Fox referred to it as “a time out.”
Fox offered little comment on the matter. He said that he had been accused over the years of appointing the same people all the time or not appointing certain people, and decided to make a change.
“Any decision I make, I make sure it is the best decision for the town of Southwick,” said Fox.
Fox said that the Select Board typically tries to make these reappointments around the beginning of a new fiscal year in July, but that the pandemic had made it “a nightmare” to get done.
“Luckily we have had several new people apply [for the commissions],” said Fox.
He said he would not engage any further in a debate about the topic through the press.
Cook-Obregon had also been chosen by the Agricultural Commission to represent it on the Master Plan Advisory Committee, a position that she thinks she will no longer be able to take because of her removal from the commission.
Clark, who has been on the Agricultural Commission for about a decade, said that he believes their removal from the commissions is illegal, and that he expects that he will also soon lose his part-time job as the town’s Conservation Coordinator.
“I shouldn’t have been surprised. But it is a shock to me that they would do something blatant enough,” said Clark.
Clark cited the Conservation Commission’s record of not missing a meeting through the pandemic and accolades from the state Department of Environmental Protection as reasons why this shakeup is a poor decision.
Pratt said that he was not informed by Fox himself that he had been removed from the commissions. He began receiving texts and messages from colleagues before he had even known about it. He alleged that Fox had previously issued a vague threat against him for not approving a project that the town had brought forward to the Community Preservation Committee, as well as another threat in 2018 when Pratt supported the “Save North Pond” initiative, the purchase of about 150 acres of undeveloped land at the northeastern corner of Congamond Lake, funded with several million dollars of state, town and private donor funds.
“He called and threatened that if we didn’t hold another meeting to have it revoked that things would become ‘unfriendly,’” said Pratt.
Pratt accused Fox of “trying to subvert the democratic process.”
“I like to do things by the book, but we have people working against us to do that,” said Pratt. “The town spoke at Carvana. They want to preserve the cultural integrity of the town.”
Pratt also criticized the Select Board for scheduling the vote for a meeting that Deedy, the Select Board chair, could not attend, presumably to shield him from political fallout. Select Board members serve staggered three-year terms, and Deedy’s is the next to expire, in spring 2022.
The outcry against the Select Board’s decision spilled onto social media. Diane Gale, who co-runs the “Keep Southwick Green No Carvana” Facebook group with Kevin Meder, where much of the Carvana opposition was organized, called the move “arbitrary” and criticized the Select Board for its decision.
“Do you see what is happening here? Do you see the pattern? They are stifling dissent. Not only do they try to silence active public participation and suppress free speech, now they are removing commission members that don’t fall in line with their agenda,” said Gale in the social media post.
Gale encouraged Southwick residents to attend the next Select Board meeting to make their voices heard.