HARWICH — Town Administrator Joseph Powers, acting as chairman of the affordable housing trust, issued an apology for his actions in the affordable housing trust session on Jan. 17. That session contained very combative dialogue between Powers and member Judith Underwood, and ended abruptly.
The lack of progress in creating affordable housing over the trust’s five years, combined with tension among trustees, has driven selectmen to consider an immediate change in membership.
Those tensions rattled the town hall hearing room with raised voices, pointed back-and-forth disagreements and some gavel pounding. The primary issues of disagreement centered around workforce housing and the annual median income (AMI) percentages under which the trust is directed to achieve its goal of creating and preserving low- and moderate-income housing.
“It has become painfully apparent to me the affordable housing trust has become increasingly dysfunctional,” said Selectman Mary Anderson in the board meeting following the trust’s session. “The only way I see to fix it and move forward to get housing…. is to change out some of the players, get some fresh minds. Two members’ terms end in June and I would like to suggest [we] thank them for their service now and bring two new players in now, or we’ll continue to be dysfunctional.”
Trust members Judith Underwood’s and Larry Brophy’s terms expire in June.
Selectman Chairman Michael MacAskill said last week that he would incorporate Anderson’s recommendation into an agenda item for this week’s board meeting. He said he received several calls from the public about the meeting.
“It was embarrassing for the town to say the least,” MacAskill said last week of the donnybrook. “I couldn’t agree with Mary more and, I agree it’s time to move forward … it’s time.”
However there was no agenda item relative to the trust’s membership included for the board’s meeting on Monday night, though Powers offered an apology for his actions in that meeting.
“I learned a long time ago that the best speakers were those who were good people speaking well. It’s something I learned in college, and something I always try to do. I did not meet that standard last week at the affordable housing trust meeting, and for that I apologize. I apologize to the members of the trust, to those who were present, to the board, and certainly to the residents of the town,” said Powers.
“I regret the manner in which I comported myself, and the manner for which the meeting was led. For that I apologize, and I offer to you my solemn promise to do the thing I’ve always tried to do, and that is to do better.”
In the trust’s meeting, Powers emphasized that trust members should not be “uttering the phrase ‘workforce housing.’” The trust chairman agreed workforce housing is a major issue for the town, but it was not included in the mission of the trust. He said workforce housing is an issue for the town’s housing committee, real estate and open space committee, community preservation committee, selectmen and town staff to address. The trust’s job is to create and preserve low- and moderate-income housing that meets the official definition of “affordable,” according to Powers.
Underwood questioned the AMI percentages Powers presented in November defining percentages for low and moderate housing guidelines. There was a vocal exchange between the two.
“Ms. Underwood, Ms. Underwood,” Powers interceded.
“I’m not finished, let me finish,” responded Underwood.
“You will yield because the chair of this public body has told you to yield, and this is not going to be a back and forth between you and I,” Powers said. “Heavy is the head that wields the gavel of a public body. The member has to yield. Will you yield?”
“I guess I do, yes,” said Underwood.
Frustration levels continued to rise during discussions about the trust, and the absence of a plan for the former Marceline property and the direction of the trust, and whether working people in low and moderate housing could be considered under the term “workforce.”
“You’re screaming right now,” Underwood said at one point to Powers.
“I’m frustrated because we have been talking for the year I’ve been chair about developing a certain parcel …. going to develop 48 units, but we’re not going to use HUD [Housing and Urban Development] money. These are irresponsible statements that have no basis in reality. Yet a majority of the trust members have said it,” Powers said.
Powers said very little has been accomplished in the first four years of the trust and members must commit to the goals moving forward.
Selectman Donald Howell, a member of the trust, said this is not the proudest moment for the town of Harwich. He said there is an agreement that the trust’s role is to create and preserve housing for people at 80 percent AMI or below.
“We’re having an argument on something we don’t disagree on,” said Howell.
Underwood revisited the earlier discussion relative to the percentages of the AMI they are charged with abiding by. She faulted Powers for not doing the research and clarifying those issues early on.
Powers: “I will not continue this meeting [slam of the gavel] as a staff member of the town of Harwich …”
“You’re yelling, yelling, you’re yelling,” interceded Underwood.
Powers: “And have you impugn my reputation, my integrity …”
“Sorry about that,” interjected Underwood.
Powers: “You will yield, you do not have the right to co-mingle my professional appointment here and talk about my work performance without just process through the board of selectmen. It is improper, illegal …unethical and you will not continue it now. This meeting is adjourned [gavel].”
There has been a lot of interest in what transpired in the trust’s 27-minute meeting. The town’s government television channel has more than 500 views of the video recording. There have been a lot of comments on the Harwich Old Timer’s Facebook page, including several statements calling for the town administrator to resign, calling his actions unacceptable.
“What a disgrace to the people of Harwich. If the arrogant/authoritative /controlling/abusive communications is representative of the TA leadership he needs to resign. The town of Harwich and those willing to serve deserve better than what was displayed at that meeting,” Tracey L. Fraser wrote on the site.
“The town administrator should resign! This was absurd. With meetings like this nothing will ever happen,” said Bob Field’s post.
“TA was totally rude to Ms. Underwood, not a proper way for a committee chair to act,” added Alice L. Bonatt.
“Bully is the first word that comes to my mind. Unacceptable,” posted Sharon Clark-Bunting.
“Joe should resign. Behavior is unacceptable,” according to Peggy Leary Gabour.
Trust member Underwood took out nomination papers this week to run for selectman.