Following a period of controversy likened by one selectman to a “witch hunt,” the Weston Board of Selectmen voted last night 2-1 to accept the westonGrapevine online communication service as a gift from Jonathan Spector, husband of town moderator Wendy Spector.
A new plan by the selectmen to solicit citizen participation via a “resident comment” agenda item led off the meeting, and was immediately followed by the westonGrapevine item, leading to a lengthy discussion in a filled room at , in which some tensions arose.
According to Town Manager Donna VanderClock, a service like westonGrapevine was first conceptualized some years ago by town officials who “wanted people to get information.” Shortly following the 2009 Town Meeting vote on the new Department of Public Works building, “Jon and Wendy (Spector) offered to build a product” that would later become myGrapevine, now westonGrapevine, she said.
Earlier this week, resident Isabella Jancourtz submitted a which stated she felt that Wendy Spector “has used her position as an elected town official to promote her business enterprise, myGrapevine,” as well as to influence voters about last year’s .
In further remarks in the letter, Jancourtz said she “heard from several parents of children in the Weston school system who were most unhappy when myGrapevine replaced ListServe” and cautioned residents not to accept this “tainted gift.”
Several other letters from residenst ensued, including calling Jancourtz’s claims “serious allegations” and stating that Jancourtz “fails to understand (that) westonGrapevine is a software platform that sends out messages authored by a wide range of people in Town Government and in our Schools. westonGrapevine is not responsible for the content of these messages, in the same way that the Post Office is not responsible for the content of the letters they deliver.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, the discussion kicked off with resident Henry Viles telling the selectmen he had submitted a letter to the state Ethics Commission, citing a perceived conflict of interest based on, among other factors, a failure to disclose financials pertaining to Wendy Spector’s position as website content manager for Weston, and, he said, the fact that the selection of the westonGrapevine service was not determined by a Request For Proposal from competitive bidders.
Controversy quickly ensued when selectman Steven Charlip expressed frustration at what he said feels like a “witch hunt.”
“I am upset about the tone this has taken on,” said Charlip, adding that the “accusatory tone is sort of disgusting and not really appropriate for a town like ours.”
Tension continued a short time later, when Jancourtz asked the board, referring to westonGrapevine’s email-only platform that does not allow for reader feedback, whether it “cared what residents have to say,” the delivery of which Charlip indicated he felt was rude.
“You are the poster boy for rudeness, Mr. Charlip,” Jancourtz countered.
By and large, the board and meeting attendees indicated support for the service, with resident Rochelle Nemrow citing past difficulties she experienced on parent and town committees in improving such communications as the main reason she found westonGrapevine a useful tool.
“I am absolutely amazed the Spectors have managed to create a platform that addresses years of communications complaints,” said Nemrow, adding that “the complaints levied (about westonGrapevine) are as if someone handed (the Spectors) a stack of blank paper and blamed them for what (others write) on the paper.”
Lee McCanne, director of technology and school libraries for Weston public schools and the town of Weston, called westonGrapevine “easy to manage” and praised its ability to “bring together both the municipal and school sides of the town.”
“The product is about the community. We have never had a product like it that allowed the town and schools to operate on the same playing field,” McCanne said. “And we’re ecstatic not to have to spend the money for it.”
Concerns about westonGrapevine included those from one resident who cited its limited use for residents who don’t have computers, as well as those expressed by Valerie Siek, who said she felt concerned about what “could be seen as the appearance of impropriety.”
acknowledged Siek’s issue but said the “appearance of the possibility of impropriety is not a reason not to (accept the gift),” adding that “though the service does not address everybody, it’s still better than before we had it. Why voluntarily step back from that when there is no cost involved? ”
For his part, Jonathan Spector reiterated his commitment to offer the service at no cost for the length of time it runs and said that he would be open to any direct conversation about the site.
“Lots of people have demanded (new) features” — including one person who asked for the change of name from myGrapevine to westonGrapevine, he said. “If people have a request for features, and if we know how to do it, we may do it.”
Spector said he found the questions of impropriety “worrying” and said he would do “whatever was necessary” to comply with any Ethics Commission concerns.
The discussion concluded with a 2-1 vote in favor of accepting the gift, with Board Chair Doug Gillespie saying he felt inclined to wait until the Ethics Commission responds to Viles’s letter, “even though I don’t see any conflict (of interest).”
Selectman Michael Harrity said he felt the previous analysis done by town counsel of the situation was sound, with Charlip saying, “I agree with Michael. If there is any violation of ethics, the Spectors are intending to comply.”
“This is all being done in good faith,” Charlip said.