PORTSMOUTH — Eight members of the town’s Open Space Committee (OSC) have resigned en masse, saying the panel’s ability to function has been seriously compromised due to confidentiality breaches.
“The Aquidneck Island Land Trust (ALT) will no longer bring potentially conserved properties to the committee as there is no trust that the properties will be held confidential and without this guarantee of executive session, our committee is rendered impotent,” stated the committee’s chairwoman, Karen M. Menezes, in a June 27 letter to the Town Council.
The council is expected to receive the eight letters of resignation at its 7 p.m. meeting Monday, July 14, at Town Hall.
Contacted Thursday afternoon, Ms. Menezes declined to be more specific regarding the reasons behind the resignations.
“I don’t really think I’m going to comment further,” she said. “I think the letters speak for themselves. None of the committee members want to name names. Having said that, it’s been a pleasure serving the town.”
Besides Ms. Menezes, the other OSC members quitting are Maureen Greichen Kielbasa, Brian J. Carroll, Helen M. Furriel, Robert J. Hehl, Carolann Doherty Brown, Linda Ujifusa and Carol M. Ryan.
Of the 11 people who are listed as committee members on the town’s website, only Debra Cardoza, Richard Moore and Claudette Weissinger did not submit letters of resignation. On Thursday, however, Ms. Menezes said there are three other OSC members, bringing the total number before the resignations to 14.
In their letters, OSC members said they are resigning with regret but expressed frustration with what they view as the panel’s inability to function. Some also claimed the Town Council has not given the committee adequate support.
Mr. Caroll said local politics have intruded in the OSC’s business.
“Unfortunately, during the past year, two members of the committee have been working at cross purposes with our open space mission,” he wrote in his resignation letter, which was received by the town clerk June 30. “As a result, we have spent many meeting hours bickering over postage stamp tax properties and park benches, neither of which have anything to do with our open space mission. These obstructionist tactics were clearly to prevent us from dealing with the ‘significant’ properties our mission statement directs us to explore.”
He added that ALT, which works closely with the OSC on open space acquisitions and conservation agreements, is now apprehensive about dealing with the committee.
“The ALT has recently indicated that confidential information has been leaked several times during the past year and that, as a result, they may stop working with us. That would surely be a death knell to future open space acquisition in Portsmouth,” he stated.
Mr. Carroll also criticized the Town Council. In November 2013 the council rejected a citizens’ watchdog group leader’s request to disband the OSC. Larry Fitzmorris of Portsmouth Concerned Citizens had accused the panel of violating state open meetings laws and subjecting one of its members — Ms. Cardoza — to personal performance hearings for political retribution.
“The recent treatment by the council after bogus and decidedly unfair charges of being ‘dysfunctional’ was unjust,” Mr. Carroll stated in his letter.
Several people at the November meeting made critical remarks about the OSC, including Elizabeth Pedro, the Town Council’s liaison to the committee. However, Ms. Pedro, who stated in November that “there’s a heavy atmosphere of mistrust” within the OSC, also did not favor disbanding the group.
Also at that November meeting, Charles Allott, ALT executive director, strongly defended the OSC, calling it the “most professional, conscientious committee” he had ever dealt with in Portsmouth.
In her June 27 letter, Ms. Kielbasa said the “repeated confidentiality breaches on the part of members have eroded the confidence” in the committee. “This combined with a lack of support from the council have rendered the Portsmouth Open Space Committee ineffective.”
Added Mr. Hehl, “the failure of the Town Council to deal with past and ongoing misconduct by (OSC) members has effectively rendered this committee as useless and of no value to our town.”
Council President James Seveney said he was surprised to hear of the eight resignations, but that he was well aware of the OSC’s “internal problems.
“There were some personality factors within the committee,” said Mr. Seveney, adding that he and Ms. Pedro sat down with OSC members in an attempt to “mend those fences.”
“We did the best we could,” he said.
Without a leader
In a separate letter to the council, Ms. Menezes said she announced her intention to resign as chairwoman to the rest of the members on June 2. She asked that anyone interested in the position to send a letter and that leader would be elected at the June 23 meeting.
“No committee member requested the position,” she said, adding that the committee did not elect a new chairman. “I ask the Town Council to advise the committee how to proceed.”