Rift between Board of Selectmen’s two leaders widens as decision on permits for marijuana establishments gets delayed
By Mark E. Vogler
The Board of Selectmen had planned on Wednesday night to resume the hearings of seven companies vying for three potential special (S-2) permits that would enable them to open adult-use cannabis businesses in Saugus. But the failure to notify the abutters of each of the businesses involved prompted selectmen to continue the hearings again – until after the town’s Nov. 7 election and the swearing-in of the new board.
But board members didn’t approve a motion to continue the hearings to Nov. 14 until after more than 15 minutes of divisive arguments – including a verbal clash between Board of Selectmen Chair Anthony Cogliano and Vice Chair Debra Panetta, with each accusing the other of unethical conduct. “You have the nerve to call me ‘unethical,” Panetta told Cogliano after he had questioned the timing of her decision to seek an Ethics Commission opinion during an unrelated hearing.
Panetta escalated her attack, mentioning several controversies involving Cogliano over the past year. “Okay, well how about you committing fraud? How about you going for WIN Waste and you signing people’s names? Why don’t we talk about that?” Panetta said. “Why don’t we talk about Uma Flowers – and how the terrible things that you said about them and we might have to be under potential litigation. How about that? How about the homophobic remarks that you made all over Facebook. How about that? You want to bring up stuff. Really.”
Cogliano kept trying to interrupt as Panetta continued her angry rant. “There we go, Deb,” Cogliano said.
“I’ve already been through all of this crap, and I’m sure it’s coming up again, and I really don’t care,” he said.
Bracing for a lawsuit?
Both Panetta and Selectman Michael Serino said they believe comments Cogliano recently made about Uma Flowers could cost the town financially after an attorney for the company took issue with several of Cogliano’s criticisms and sent a letter to him and other members of the board. “Quite frankly, I think we’re going to end up in a court battle here,” Serino said, referring to the detailed letter from Attorney Valerio Romano.
The Marijuana Establishment Review Committee (MERC) issued a report that ranked Uma Flowers as best-suited location for an adult-use cannabis business in Saugus. With a proposed location at 24 Broadway (Route 1 North), Uma Flowers was the unanimous selection of the seven-member MERC, achieving a perfect score of 140 total points, based on an “exceptional” rating by each member in each of the five categories that were considered.
At Wednesday’s meetings, Cogliano continued to defend his criticism of the MERC report. “I don’t agree with that report, whatsoever,” Cogliano said. He said the committee failed to do thorough research before making its recommendations.
“That report is inclusive. It makes no sense to me,” Cogliano said, adding that if he went around with a video camera, documenting what he observed at places run by the businesses seeking the S-2 permits, “The residents of Saugus would be scratching their heads.
Chair accuses colleagues of “rubber stamping” Crabtree
Cogliano also said the MERC report was unfair and “vindictive” toward the businesses where he had disclosed a potential conflict. And he also questioned the reluctance of Town Manager Scott C. Crabtree to meet with him and discuss the report. “Communication is horrible with this town manager,” he said, insisting that Crabtree should have attended Wednesday’s meeting to answer questions.
“You guys want to rubber stamp everything he says, go right ahead,” Cogliano told his colleagues.
Panetta didn’t like Cogliano’s criticism. “I take offense when you say we rubber stamp everything,” Panetta said. “These people are responsible people and they’re very well-respected. You’re questioning their integrity,” he said.
Serino called Cogliano’s criticism of the MERC “a disgrace.” Serino also questioned the chair’s decision to review out-of-town facilities owned by the companies. “We’re here to talk about location, not to discuss qualifications,” Serino said.
Cogliano said he was just being thorough in his quest to determine what company would be the best for Saugus. “When it comes to business, I’d like to see who I think is going to make it here and not make it here,” Cogliano said. “I want to have that discussion.”
Cogliano criticized the MERC for only recommending two permits, when it could have three. Worst of all, Cogliano said, he feared the town may only get one marijuana establishment when it comes time to vote.
Serino criticized Cogliano for poor leadership by not making sure that neighbors near the businesses had been notified. “He’s the chair. He should have known two weeks ago,” Serino said.
“He wants to run the town – what a joke. The whole board has been not too good over the last year,” he said.
The leadership duel continues
After the meeting, the board’s two top leaders expressed additional concerns about the situation.
Cogliano sent this email to The Saugus Advocate: “I think the members of the BOS are elected for one reason and one reason only, and that is to do what’s in the best [interest] of the town of Saugus…not be a rubber stamp for the Town Manager. I always do my homework….if the other members did theirs, they’d know the MERC report is extremely vindictive against anyone that has a connection to me and extremely flawed. I’ve asked for months to sit with the Manager and his committee and I get nothing in return. If this instance doesn’t show how desperate we are in Saugus to rewrite our charter, nothing will. I’m tired of it, the voters should be too. We need a change.”
Panetta emailed this statement to the paper: “Mr. Cogliano has changed the meeting dates and delayed this process because the MERC did not recommend any of the three (3) out of seven applicants that Mr. Cogliano has financial conflicts and friendships with and has filed conflicts of interest disclosures for. He failed to notify abutters about the change in date which was the reason for last night’s continuance. In fact, at least one applicant stated that they were not notified. One has to wonder if the MERC recommended any of these three would Mr. Cogliano be delaying the process as he has.”