By Rick Sobey
BILLERICA -- While selectmen won't encourage it, residents can now send them anonymous attack letters with the promise the notes will stay away from the recycling bin.
A month after voting to throw away disparaging anonymous letters, Billerica selectmen reversed course Monday night and voted unanimously to repeal the policy.
"All policies that we pass should enhance, benefit and contribute to the accessibility of government for our residents. This policy doesn't do this," said Selectman Andrew Deslaurier in the discussion before the board rescinded the policy, 5-0.
"Any approach that we take to limit residents' ability to communicate to us is an infringement on their rights," Deslaurier added. "A blanket policy against feedback in a certain format is not in the spirit of this board. We should be continuing to push transparency and access for residents. We don't want to go down a slippery slope."
In May, selectmen approved the initial policy, 3-2, to dispose anonymous malicious letters. Selectmen Chairman Mike Rosa proposed the policy after he had received another nasty anonymous letter in his meeting packet. The letter insinuated that four selectmen did not support full-day kindergarten and that "people were watching them." It has never been publicly stated that selectmen oppose full-day kindergarten.
A few days later in mid-May, Rosa and two other selectmen approved the policy for town employees to "immediately trash" anonymous letters, emails, faxes and hand-delivered notes that attack a person or committee instead of criticize a decision; the one exception was a threatening note, which would be immediately reported to Billerica police.
On Monday, Rosa stressed the policy was an attempt to not only shield selectmen from negative remarks, but also to protect the town manager and department heads.
"In no way was this intended to keep people from communicating with us and neither did it," Rosa said. "It was intended to weed out malicious, mean comments that are sent anonymously.
"This was in no violation of any statute," he added. "We got a legal opinion from town counsel that said we created no violation here."
It was legal to immediately toss the anonymous disparaging letters, according to the Secretary of State's Office. But Selectman John Piscatelli emphasized that a legal policy does not always mean the right policy for the town.
"We started out as a board in April saying we're a board that is accessible, inclusive and transparent -- words I said in the election campaign over and over again," said Piscatelli, who initially voted in May with Rosa and Selectman Dan Burns to approve the policy. "If what we did caused a hint or perception that challenges what we stand for, then it should be repealed."
Selectman George Simolaris and Deslaurier initially voted in May to reject the policy. Simolaris has emphasized that anonymous letters could include important information for the town.
The next scheduled selectmen meeting isn't until Aug. 11. There's a chance for a meeting in July, according to Deslaurier.
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