Jun 292011

After several false starts, Hazel Grove Park on Jenkins Road will gain an official team of advocates this evening. The Groton Park Commission set up the “Hazel Grove Planning Committee” with an official name, a mission, a deadline, and a dozen members last week. And the Planning Committee is scheduled to hold its first meeting tonight — for the second time.

Jean Armstrong, Adam Burnett, Stacey Chilcoat, Anna Eliot, Gineane Haberlin, Linda McCrossan, Laura Menard, Patti Modzelewski, George Moore, John Ott, Meredith Scarlet, and Tim Svarczkopf are to be sworn in for a one-year term. Recently elected Park Commissioner Laurie Smigelski is the liaison to the Park Commission, but is not a member of the planning committee. The planning committee has a year to create a one, a three, and a five-year plan to revitalize the portion of the old town fairgrounds that lies within the park. Part of the original fairgrounds lies outside the park on land controlled by the town Conservation Committee, and other pieces are now privately owned.

Smigelski said she was very optimistic about the group’s makeup and mission, but warns that forming the committee is the first step in a longer journey. “I want this to work, to take what we have and improve it and have things move forward and make it great. I think we all have to realize that it can’t all be done at once. You take one aspect and you build, and you tweak, and you find out what works and make a little change here. I think it’s organic, it’s constantly molding and changing and tweaking things,” she said. “But we’re just in the early stages of this — there’s so much fact-finding that we need to do before the committee can come up with a good direction.”

“That’s what this whole thing is about — to come up with a good way to manage and maintain. To find out how we’re going to do this. We have ideas, but we have to find out how to do things first,” she said.

John Ott, a committee nominee and President of the Groton Historical Society, was also looking forward to the committee’s launch. “I really want to make sure we do this right the first time,” he said. Ott said the Historical Society is working on a survey of historic agricultural sites and activities in Groton, and the fairgrounds fits right into that. He also hoped the Historical Society could work with the Agricultural Commission, the body currently holding approval from the Board of Selectmen to research and apply to get the fairgrounds listed on the state and national registers of historic places. And finally, he’s very interested in seeing if there’s a way to rescue the historic Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Club Exhibition Hall, now used as a stable, from years of neglect.

Tim Svarczkopf is a committee volunteer who is a newcomer to town politics and committees. He also volunteered to coordinate the first meeting and swearing in of the committee members. He explained that he was going into the project with hopes of broadening community use. “I was upset at the conflicts of interest that I read about, and felt that there needed to some justice added to the mix over at Hazel Grove, and it’s really the driving force behind me being involved. I don’t have thoughts yet about what comes out of the committee, but I hope it’s a fair and balanced examination of what should happen there, and I think there are a lot of possibilities, but I don’t enter into it with any preconceptions.”

Patti Modzelewski is a long-time volunteer, with experience on the town Personnel Board, the Groton Turns 350 organization, and the G-D Youth Basketball League. “I had no interest in the fairgrounds whatsoever until I read about it — I don’t have a horse,” she said with a laugh. “And I have no preconceived ideas. I’m looking forward to what the Parks Commission is asking us to do. I think it’s important to have an open mind about what the fairgrounds has been and what it could be. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a town board, so maybe I’m a little bit bored myself, but I love the town of Groton and what it has to offer and I think I can be very objective. I hope we come out of this with something great.”

The Planning Committee grew out of a proposal to survey Hazel Grove Park, on Jenkins Road, as a potential site for town playing fields. The park contains the core of the old town fairgrounds: a half-mile dirt horse racing track, storage sheds, and an “Exhibition Building” other buildings containing stalls that are all tightly controlled by the private Groton Riding and Driving Club for the use of its members. The track is not open to the public, and only club members may rent one of the fairgrounds stalls. The infield of the track is used by the Groton Pony Club for youth horse shows and riding classes, and is open to riders from the community. The park also has entry points to Groton’s network of trails that can be used for trail rides. The potential for a change away from horse-centric activities mobilized the equestrian community, both in Groton and across New England, spurring the formation of the Planning Committee.

Members of the planning committee were originally supposed to meet for the first time last week. That meeting didn’t happen because last-minute changes in the committee’s structure made by the Park Commission on June 9 were squashed by an opinion put forward by Town Clerk Michael Bouchard. As a result, the committee is to be set up as it was originally set up in April.

What exactly happened to cause the delay? Here is the timeline leading up to the creation of the Hazel Grove Planning Committee:

April 9  When the planning committee was first proposed after a site walk at Hazel Grove Park, it was described by Park Commission Chairman Don Black as a seven-to-nine member advisory committee to the Park Commission that would “Undertake a study for the betterment, the improvement, the maintenance, and bringing forth longevity to the Hazel Grove Park property.”

April 13  At the Commission’s regular April meeting, a list of nine potential committee members compiled by Laurie Smigelski at Black”s request on April 9 was made public. (When Black asked Smigelski to collect and submit names on April 9, she was acting as a private citizen. At that time, she had already filed nominating papers seeking a seek on the Park Commission in the May town election. She was elected by a healthy majority to fill a seat on the commission left vacant by Don Billingsly, who chose not to run for re-election. Smigelski was sworn in as a member of the Park Commission on May 18, the day after the election.)

At the Park Commission’s April 13 meeting, Selectman Anna Eliot suggested that list of potential members by broadened by inviting other Groton residents to participate. The Commission adopted her suggestion, and invited the community to submit “committee interest forms” through Black’s town e-mail address until June 1.

May 25 In a phone conversation on May 25, a week before the deadline, Black said that he had received “about 20” committee interest forms in addition to the names of about 10 interested residents that Smigelski had collected.

June 1 The deadline for residents to file “committee interest forms.”

June 8  At the regular meeting of the Park Commission, Smigelski read a list of 14 people who would make up the committee, her original list of nine plus five people who had submitted committee interest forms. She stated that she had included all the names of interested people that she had received from Black.

Asked in the meeting about the difference in numbers of “interested residents” between the 20+ forms he said he had received on May 25 and the five that Smigelski had received from him, Black said: “As they came to me through e-mail one at a time, I forwarded them to Laurie. It just seemed like I got a lot of them. Maybe not 20. I didn’t count them.”

Black then introduced a motion saying that the 14 people would become the “Hazel Grove Park Association,” a public user group, not the advisory committee that the Park Commission had earlier voted to establish. The difference is critical to how the group would work and to whom it would be responsible.

  • An advisory committee is a public body, a subset of the Park Commission, with meetings that are open to all and which are subject to state open meeting laws and conflict of interest laws.
  • A public user group is a private organization with its own rules and regulations, not connected in any way with the town or subject to any public review.
  • Hazel Grove Park already has two “user groups,” the Groton Pony Club and the Groton Riding and Driving Club.

When asked in the meeting if the new “user group” was the same thing as the “advisory committee” the Park Commission had been working on since April, Black said: “It is and it isn’t. In this day and age, Art, I would like to think that we could deal with this in a common sense approach without getting out there and splitting a lot of hairs. I think what we need is an approach to this where we can sit there and say ‘What is the best use of Hazel Grove Park?’ and I think if John, as an example, says ‘I have a friend that ran a farm down in Delaware and I think that … he did something that might work here and I’d like to bring him on to discuss that with the group,’ I think he’s certainly available to do that without having to subject himself to the open meeting laws. And if he wants to bring an additional guest in, or something, it’s not something that has to be charted.'”

Black’s motion passed unanimously.

June 10 In response to questions from Black, Smigelski, and Svarczkopf to Town Clerk Bouchard about the steps required to start the committee, Bouchard said the “user group” designation would be a violation of state law. He wrote in an e-mail: “I talked with Don Black today. It is pretty clear that this group is to be considered a public body under the Open Meeting Law. As such, Don will arrange for official appointments. Members will need to be sworn in… The purpose of the Open Meeting Law is to help make sure that the public’s business is done in public, as we discussed.”

June 21 The scheduled kick-off meeting for the planning committee occurred, but no business could be conducted. The initial meeting had to be rescheduled in order for the Park Commission to enact motions formally appointing the committee members. In its attempt to change the status and purpose of the committee so that it would not be a “public body” under state law, the Park Commission also didn’t comply with a state regulation that requires it to officially appoint members.

June 22 As a result of Bouchard’s opinion on the group’s status, the Park Commission met for the second time in June to officially appoint the members of the advisory committee.

Black began the special meeting of the Park Commission by objecting to a provision (Section 20.(e)) of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law that permits anyone attending a public meeting to record it, saying: “Does anyone have an objection to Art (The Groton Line) recording our meeting, other than me? I have an objection and I want that duly noted in the record. Anyone else object?” (The Groton Line attempts to record all public meetings it covers to ensure the accuracy of quotations used in its stories. — Ed.) Commissioner Jeffrey Ohringer also objected; Commissioner Laurie Smigelski did not. Commissioner David Howes was not able to attend the meeting, and Commissioner Jonathan Strauss arrived slightly late due to another commitment and did not vote on that motion.

In the commission’s discussion about the committee appointments, Smigelski stated that former Park Commissioner Don Billingsley, representing the Groton Riding and Driving Club; and Steve Moulton had withdrawn their names from the list of potential members rather than participate in a public body. With that change, the 12 volunteers were formally appointed and the name of the committee was also set.

The Groton Line investigated the apparent difference in the number of committee interest forms that Black said he had received in May (about 20) and actually did receive and pass along to Smigelski. The initial examination of documents obtained from the Town Clerk’s office seem to validate Black’s June statement that only a handful had been submitted and everyone who did submit one was included on the committee.