Intimidation Used to Stifle Public Testimony at Planning Board Meeting on Teen Shelter Expansion Application; “To Expect Us To Read All Of This Material Is An Insult,” Lowry

Mark Swann, executive director, Preble Street, Following His Scolding at Planning Board Meeting.

By Carol McCracken (Post # 1,018)

Earlier this week the first public hearing was held by the city’s planning board, Joe Lewis, Chair, on a Conditional Use Application submitted by Preble Street allowing it to use the first and second floors of 38 Preble Street as a new location for its Lighthouse Teen Shelter, currently located at 65 Elm Street. The Elm Street lease expires the end of this year and will not be renewed because of the poor condition of the building.

Part of the application includes a request for a 24 bed expansion as part of the new facility. Twelve beds for boys and twelve beds for girls – on separate floors of 38 Preble Street, which is currently under contract for purchase by Preble Street. Other space in the building will be used for laundry and administrative offices. The case for this expansion was made in part due to the large numbers of homeless teens turned away from the shelter because of the economy as well as problems at home – which necessitate finding shelter elsewhere.

At the outset of the workshop held in the City Council Chambers with an overflow crowd in the balcony, the self-described “flip” Chair, admitted that he did not want to sit through 3 hours or more of testimony in support of this application, because there were other items on the agenda yet to be heard. Twice the Chair asked for a show of hands of those who supported the expansion and when many hands went up, Lewis asked them if that wasn’t enough. Did they need to testify? “Did you know your application is not the only matter on our agenda today?” he asked the filled council chamber. After several other attempts to stiffle public testimony, potential testifiers on both sides of the issue emptied council chambers unsatisfied with the process as they experienced it.

Tom Blackburn, a resident of the area, did manage to testify, however. He’s opposed to the expansion in that area calling for a “campus” of its own for Preble Street in another part of the city. The director of United Way, who contributes to Preble Street, spoke in favor of the expansion as did Hugh Nazor, a Federal Street resident and several others before city hall emptied in response to pressure from attorney Lewis. Only remaining in council chambers were Swann, board president Cito Sellinger and those involved in the proposed expansion plans.

Planner Jean Fraser said she received 297 emails in support of the expansion of the shelter by Preble Street. Those communications were part of the planning board’s information package which prompted attorney Lee Lowry 11 to scold Mark Swann, executive director, of Preble Street, for “using the city’s resources in this manner. To expect us to read all of this material is an insult to us,” said the exasperated Lowry, holding the package of emails up in the air.

The Historic Preservation Board will hold a workshop on the proposal by Preble Street for Proposed Exterior and Site Alterations associated with a Change of Use at 38 Preble Street on Wednesday, November 16, 2011