NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

September 25, 2013

Town manager calls on citizens group to refute accusations

BY ANGELJEAN CHIARAMIDA
STAFF WRITER

---- — SALISBURY — In an unusual public statement, the town manager is demanding that a Salisbury Beach citizens group “repudiate” a newspaper article it emailed to its membership, calling it “false and slanderous.”

The article, published in the Lawrence-based Valley Patriot, contained accusations made by Joyce and Gracemarie Tomaselli, who believe the town has done them wrong over sewer-related fee issues. The court battle between the sisters and the town has been going on for about 20 years, with the town recently winning a court battle in its effort to take the Tomasellis’ Salisbury Beach property for nonpayment of over $250,000 in taxes and fees.

With comments that pulled no punches, Town Manager Neil Harrington not only took to task the monthly newspaper for not contacting the town for comment before printing the article, but he also slammed the Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change, which sent the story all over town via an email on its letterhead.

“I want the citizens of Salisbury to know that these claims are false and slanderous,” Harrington said in a prepared statement at Monday night’s selectmen’s meeting. “I am calling on the Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change to repudiate this article and for citizens of this town to disassociate themselves from this organization if they do not do so. The people of Salisbury need to know that their local government will not be intimidated by this ongoing campaign of lies by the Tomasellis and their allies, but will continue to fight for the hard-working taxpayers of this town against the efforts of a small group of self-interested zealots who are trying to mislead them.”

All five selectmen added their agreement to Harrington’s statement after he finished.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Henry Richenburg said Harrington’s verbal reprimand was warranted and long overdue. Selectman Fred Knowles added he couldn’t stand by the Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change if it tried “to mislead people,” concerning the town’s position in the Tomasellis complaint through circulation of the article.

Called for comment yesterday on Harrington’s statement, Gracemarie Tomaselli said she and her sister stick by every claim they made in the article. She said although Harrington said the town has won every lawsuit they filed against it, she insists that’s because town officials lied at court hearings.

“When it comes to who’s telling the truth, we’re telling the truth,” Tomaselli said.

Contacted yesterday for comment on why the Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change sent out the email to its membership, its president, Tom Saab, refused to comment.

“I’m not talking to you about anything,” Saab said.

However, Saab later left a message confirming the SBCC had sent out an email containing a link to the story to about 300 to 400 members. He said in the email, the SBCC does not offer a comment on the issue, only a link to the article.

Chuck Takesian, an SBCC member who is on its Advisory Board, said the article was upsetting. A former selectmen, Takesian was on the board during initial years when the Tomasellis’ complaints against the town began.

“The article is totally false; when I read the story I was incensed,” Takesian said yesterday. “I can’t believe (the author) didn’t contact the town for comment. What kind of a journalist is he? I will totally disavow myself from the Salisbury Beach Citizens for Change if I learn they’re backing this email.”

The story was written by Tom Duggan, publisher of The Valley Patriot. It appeared last week, about a month after the Land Court Judge Gordon H. Piper ordered the Tomasellis to pay more than $250,000 in back taxes, sewer charges, interest and legal fees by Sept. 30 or risk losing their 113-115 North End Blvd properties to the town for taxes. The Aug. 2 order was the result of 19 years of acrimonious tax battles between two beach property owners and the town and the latest finding against the sisters by the courts.

Yesterday, Duggan said he didn’t call the town before printing the story because he intends to write a series of stories -- one each month -- on the Tomasellis dispute. The story that appeared in the September issue gave the Tomaselli’s a “voice,” he said, and the chance to air their views.

Duggan hopes to contact town officials to get its side of the issue for future stories.

“I”m not skewed to one side or the other,” Duggan said. “I’m not for or against the Tomasellis.”

However, Duggan said Harrington should have called him before making his comments against the article at Monday night’s selectmen’s meeting, which was broadcast live.

“He should have called me before making such statements at a public forum,” Duggan said.

Harrington feels the same way, believing Duggan should have called him before presenting the Tomaselli’s accusations without hearing the town’s point of view.

The case revolves around a long-standing feud between the Tomasellis and town officials, related to the sewer betterment and other sewer fees on the property they purchased in 1991 to establish their restaurant, named Mangia, above which they lived. The betterment charge related to the installation of the town sewer lines, plus the construction of Salisbury’s sewer treatment plant decades ago.

The sisters claim they didn’t know about the betterment fee and wouldn’t have purchased the Salisbury property if they had. They’ve sued over this issue numerous times, however, to date, they haven’t won any of those legal battles, although one suit is still pending in federal court in Boston.

This issue and its lawsuits go back to 1994, when the sisters failed to pay the sewer betterment charge assessed to their property, which resulted their inability to obtain the business and liquor licenses, as well as other permits they needed to run the restaurant, eventually leading to its closure.

In the Valley Patriot article, the sisters are quoted frequently, claiming the town bled them “dry” with fees and illegal betterment charges, lied in court, and filed to take their property for back taxes as retribution for the lawsuits.

“This article portrays the Tomasells as innocent victims of some sort of conspiracy by the town that will soon result in the loss of their property for non-payment of taxes,” Harrington said Monday night. “I would like the public to know that the article is replete with inaccuracies, false statements and outrageous charges against the town, printed as gospel without even the courtesy of a phone call having been made in advance to me . . .to check on the accuracy of the Tomaselli’s claims.”

In the article, the sisters call the betterment fees fake, because grants paid for the total cost of the project, something Harrington said was “the most outrageous charge.” He added town officials never lied in testimony at court hearings.

And the reason the town moved to take their property for taxes was not retribution, Harrington said.

“. . . the Tomasellis haven’t paid a cent to the town in property tax in over a decade,” Harrington said, “which is the real reason the town has moved to take their property.”