HOPKINTON — A recent decision by the Town Council not to reappoint Tom Holberton to the Planning Board prompted a prolonged and heated discussion at Monday’s council meeting.
Council member Sylvia Thompson introduced a motion at the previous council meeting on May 6, supported by council President Frank Landolfi and councilor Barbara Capalbo, to not reappoint Holberton. Council Vice President Scott Bill Hirst was opposed, and with councilor and Planning Board Liaison Sharon Davis absent, Thompson's motion carried.
Holberton was not present when his reappointment was discussed, and it was council members’ comments, which were made in open, public session, that infuriated residents. Thompson said, and Capalbo and Landolfi agreed, that Holberton had exhibited a demeanor that had elicited complaints from residents and developers.
“The reason I brought that motion to the floor is because of residents who contacted us and said ‘make sure you look at a certain video,’ Thompson said, referring to the minutes of a Planning Board meeting, which are recorded. “You want people on boards and commissions that are thoughtful and not rude and not aggressive. I was concerned about the appointment way back, and unfortunately, there’s a video, where, very clearly, he’s just not representing the town the way we like. It’s got nothing to do with votes. It’s just his manner.”
Capalbo said she felt that Holberton’s comportment was related to his opposition to some solar energy applications.
“When solar comes up, it is brought up by developers by right, whether people like it or not or want it here, and they need to be handled and talked to in a professional and calm and respectful manner,” she said. “… Tom Holberton certainly is always passionate and intense and other members of the Planning Board are as well, but it needs to be done in a more civil manner. It is an embarrassment to the town.”
Landolfi described Holberton as failing to show respect for applicants and abutters.
“He is disrespectful to abutters, to applicants, to witnesses, to everybody involved, and, as Sylvia mentioned, it has no place in our government as far as I’m concerned, ” he said.
Holberton, who served on the Planning Board from 1986 to 2008 and was reappointed in 2016, said he was prepared to accept the council’s vote and move on, until his wife Janet watched a video recording of the meeting and told him what had been said about him.
“They should have just not reappointed me and kept their mouths shut, because I would have just walked off happily into the sunset,” he said in a private interview before Monday’s council meeting. “But since they bad-mouthed me personally, I mean there was a blatant personal attack. It didn’t have anything to do with the town or politics or business as usual. They just came after me like I was the worst person on earth.”
Holberton asked that the issue be added to Monday’s council agenda, but his request was denied and he was told that he would have to speak instead during the public forum portion of the meeting.
At the beginning of the forum, Eric Bibler and Joe Moreau of Hopkinton Citizens for Responsible Planning, a residents’ group that opposes commercial solar arrays in residential zones, presented Holberton with a plaque to thank him for his years of volunteer service.
Several residents, and Holberton himself, then asked the council members who had made negative comments about his comportment to apologize.
“You need to apologize. This was inexcusable, the things you said and the way you said them,” Holberton said, eliciting a round of applause. “I think maybe the worst thing is, I wasn’t even here. How could you do that to somebody?”
Holberton’s wife, Janet, noted that no one had ever indicated to her husband or board Chairman Al DiOrio that there was a problem.
“If you were displeased or dissatisfied with the Planning Board, a more appropriate course of action would have been to call a meeting with Al DiOrio and all the members, but you chose not to do that. You should have at least had the decency to speak to Tom before the meeting but, again, that was not done. Your conduct was despicable … I should also hope that no other volunteer for the town of Hopkinton goes through this.”
Moreau suggested that Holberton was being punished for his opposition to zoning changes for solar projects.
“Is he just the first victim because of his stance on spot zoning?” he said. “It definitely is spot zoning on a lot of these projects. Who is the next Planning Board member to come up for reappointment? I don’t know, but I would be concerned if I was that person.”
The public forum does not provide an opportunity for council members to respond directly to residents, but Landolfi invited Holberton to contact him privately to discuss the issue.