Editor’s Note: For this week’s column, we sat down with Saugus Town Counsel John Vasapoli, who has been giving legal advice to Saugus town government officials and boards for more than four decades. Vasapolli, 71, was born in Lynn and moved with his family to Saugus when he was three. He wanted to attend Saugus High School, but his parents wanted him to go to a parochial school, so he attended St. Mary’s in Lynn, where he graduated in 1970. He was voted “Most Likely To Succeed” in his class. Both of his grandparents immigrated from Sicily. His father’s family grew up in the Brickyard of Lynn. His grandfather on his dad’s side of the family was a foreman at Lynn Gas and Electric. Vasapolli’s father worked for more than 30 years at GE and died at age 55.
In 1974, Vasapolli graduated with cum laude honors from Providence College with a bachelor’s degree in the Humanities. He put himself through Suffolk Law School without a car, walking from School Street to Cliftondale Square to catch a bus to Boston. Vasapolli recalled that he didn’t get his first car until he was 26. He paid $900 for a Mercury Montego and had to borrow $300 from his best friend to insure the car. He graduated from Suffolk Law School in 1977 and passed the bar exam soon after. He got involved in Saugus local government, serving as an associate member of the Board of Appeals and later was appointed to the Board of Assessors. Vasapolli applied for an opening as assistant town counsel and took the position in 1980. Opportunity knocked after six months on the job. Bradbury Gilbert retired as town counsel after 19 years. Vasapolli was appointed to fill the position he’s held ever since.
Vasapolli got married and raised a family. His wife Linda, from Lynn, is a nurse. They have two sons: Joseph, 38, of Chelmsford, is a property manager; David, 32, of Georgetown, has worked six and a half years as an attorney for his father in the Saugus Law Office of Vasapolli & Ricciardelli. The firm specializes in probate and family law, estate planning, business law and personal injury. Vasapolli is a former president of the Essex Bar Association, served as a hearing officer for the Board of Bar Overseers and recently served on the Joint Bar Committee, which makes gubernatorial recommendations on whether candidates are qualified for judgeships. He is also a member of the Greater Lynn Bar Association. Highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: For the benefit of Saugus Advocate readers, what is the role of the Town Counsel, or Town Attorney?
A: In that position, you are the legal advisor to all town officials. You have to advise them on all legal matters. You have to attend all of the Town Meetings, advise the Town Meeting and Moderator. You review contracts for the town manager. You’re appointed by the town manager. And on a daily basis, you are rendering legal advice to town officials. You’re involved in most of the decisions that are made as an advisor. My nickname is “The Consigliere.” “The Consigliere,” like in “The Godfather” (the movie).” So, you’re basically corporate counsel.
Q: How many town managers have you served under?
A: I’ve served under nine town managers.
Q: Do you have one you served under who sticks out more than the others?
A: Well, I think they have all had their strong points and week points. I think that if you look at the records of each of them, that would show what type of job they did, whether they did a good job or a bad job. Some were here for shorter terms than others. I served as temporary town manager on two occasions – after Steve Angelo and after Andrew Bisignani – and I was just kind of keeping the ship sailing until the selectmen had gone through the selection process and appointed the town manager. I’ve seen all types of town managers. But I think if you look at the record, you can make your own judgement as to who were the most effective and who were the least effective.
Q: And as far as longevity…
A: Yes, I think the present town manager has been the longest.
Q: Yes, he’s the only one who has served for over a decade.
A: Yes, and if you look at his record, and financially – the type of situation we’re in – he has a combination of accounting background, legal background; he was also a police officer. He has a lot of vision, which is great. It’s a very difficult job. It takes a tremendous amount of time; every day’s a problem, and it’s a difficult position.
I think some town managers were much more qualified than others. Unfortunately, we had one [Bisignani] that went to jail for criminal wrongdoing – a sad situation. The present town manager was fired and there was a recall as a result of it. So, it’s been an interesting nine town managers.
Q: What would you say is the average number of hours that it takes to be a town counsel?
A: I would say it varies. Now, during Town Meeting when it meets, it’s more because you need to be at the Town Meeting, and members have a lot of questions during the week. But on a daily basis, I’m in touch with department heads with legal questions. The building inspector will call me about the zoning bylaws. The town clerk might call me. The manager, I speak to every day probably – or almost every day – on various matters. So, it varies. I’m available full-time even though I have a private practice, but I am available on a full-time basis for my services.
Q: From the time that you began as town counsel to now, have you seen an increase in the amount of time that the town decides to go with a special counsel, because of the complicated issues that confront the town, which would make it impossible to focus on a complex case while at the same time doing the day-to-day tasks as town counsel? I just want to get your read on that.
A: Sure. I think the legal profession, just like the medical profession, has become very specialized. So, if we have an environmental case, we bring in an environmental lawyer; we’ll hire a special lawyer for labor negotiations. I am the day-to-day corporate counsel. My advice is requested. But, there’s a lot of specialization: There are lawyers that just litigate; there are lawyers who only handled labor negotiations; there are lawyers that only do environmental cases. There’s a need for that, and that need is in every city and town. Most cities and towns have a city solicitor or a town counsel, and they bring in outside lawyers, too, on a case-by-case basis. As you can see, zoning has become very specialized. Development has become very specialized. Although the manager might bring in a special counsel, he’ll always have me involved, consulting as a team with the outside counsel.
But again, it’s like the medical profession, where you have a heart doctor; specialized medicine is the same way. You have a general practitioner who does your physicals. But if you have a heart problem, you go to a specialist.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge for you as Town Counsel?
A: I would say that you have to call them as you see them. You have to advise the town manager and the department heads as to what the law is. You can’t tell them what they want to hear. Just like a doctor – a doctor shouldn’t tell you that you’re not ill when you are sick. And I think it’s the same way with a town counsel. If you have to tell town officials, “This is the law,” they may not want to hear it. Sometimes they don’t follow it.
I would say that I’ve been lucky enough that most of the time the department heads that I’ve advised and town employees that I’ve advised have followed my advice. And the biggest challenge is you want to make sure that you give them the right advice. That’s probably the most challenging thing. You may have department heads that want to do something or a town manager that may want to do something, and you have to say, “Legally, you can’t do that.” You might have to tell the selectmen, “Look, you have no authority to do this.”
Sometimes selectmen get elected and they think they are more than a licensing authority. But they’re not the town manager and get to spend the money. They appoint the town manager. They’re the licensing authority, but the town manager has the appointing powers and the spending powers, and he does the hiring and firing.
Q: Now, you’ve had a couple of high-profile cases over the years, like the woman librarian embezzling money and a couple of building inspectors who may have been corrupt. What’s that like?
A: Whenever there’s a criminal investigation, we’d cooperate 100 percent with federal authorities or local authorities in honoring any subpoenas they may issue to us. We open up the books, and if anybody ever complains about a department head, we’ll say, Look, go to the U.S. Attorney. Go to the district attorney. We don’t tolerate that kind of misconduct and there is a process to go through. We’ve had the FBI in here on a number of occasions. Over my 42 years, we’ve had the DA in here. We just open up the books and cooperate 100 percent.
Q: That sounds pretty tough. You’re working with somebody, and all of a sudden, they are under state or federal probe.
A: I had that with a town manager who I worked under. It was very difficult. He left here and went to another town. That’s when I became a temporary town manager. It was very nerve-racking.
Q: And, at that point, you have to suspend any kind of communication with a town official who is facing criminal charges.
A: What happened with that previous town manager – when Andrew Bisignani left, I was given information that there were a number of contracts that weren’t bid that should have been bid. And I was in a position where I had to do something about it. And I had a colleague who reminded me of Sen. Sam Ervin in the Watergate hearings, whose line was “What did you know and when did you know it?”
So, I contacted the [state] Department of Revenue and the Inspector General’s Office. The Inspector General came in immediately and investigated, and the Department of Revenue said, “You have to conduct a forensic audit. And that’s what we did. It was a very difficult situation: a difficult situation for me to be in. But it wasn’t anything we were going to cover up. Crimes were committed. This individual went to another town and committed other crimes and eventually got indicted.
But when you are violating municipal finance laws, you have a problem. When you are violating bidding laws, that’s a problem. You have to follow the laws. It’s the public’s money. It’s the taxpayer’s money. It’s not your money. That time was difficult for me.
Q: That’s a real challenge: when you’ve been working with somebody you trusted.
A: Exactly, that’s not something you can cover up, especially when you have employees coming to you, pointing out the irregularities. That’s very difficult.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
A: Representing the town I grew up in. It’s an honor for me to represent the town I grew up in and to advise the town officials – to take pride in the fact that I live here and I care about the town I grew up in. That’s the most rewarding. I’ve had offers in other towns to represent other towns. But I had no desire to work in any place but Saugus. My practice is here. My family is here. I brought my family up here. It’s extremely rewarding. It’s an honor.
Q: So, you must get a big thrill on Town Meeting night.
A: Well, you never know what they are going to ask you. I don’t have the questions ahead of time. I wish I did. But I enjoy the challenge and just strive to give them the right answer. And it’s difficult. It’s not always easy.
Q: What’s the craziest thing you were ever asked to get a legal opinion on?
A: I have to think about that. I’d have to think about that one. That’s an interesting one.
I think it’s hard sometimes for people to understand; for example, when selectmen get elected, what their role is; or if somebody gets appointed to a Board of Appeals, what their role is. You have to read the town bylaws. You have to read the zoning. You have to read the Town Charter. It’s all there – all in the statute. And sometimes people think they have more authority than they really have. It’s kind of like putting them in their lane and telling them to stay in their lane and this is what you can do and can’t do. That’s always a conflict between the town manager and selectmen.
In our town, it’s a very strong town manager form of government. It’s difficult because he’s hired and fired by the same five people. Now, we changed the charter, so if he’s an incumbent, he only needs a majority vote to extend his contract, not four out of five – which I think is a good thing. And I think the process by which selectmen are elected in this town – all five at the same time – I think is a poor system. Most cities and towns have staggered elections, where two run at a time. When you have five [candidates] running for selectmen, you just need to come in the top five. You don’t have to be the best out of two.
Q: So, you think the town elections should be staggered?
A: I absolutely think they should be staggered. I think that’s been a problem over the years. I think the Town Meeting is too small – 50 members. I believe it’s one of the smallest in the state. It’s a representative Town Meeting. There should be more than 50 members. When you need a two-thirds vote, 15 could block something, especially with a town of our size. I think there should be a larger Town Meeting, and I think selectmen should run in staggered elections.
Q: How many people would you go with in a Town Meeting?
A: Maybe close to 100 – somewhere between 50 and 100. I like representative Town Meeting, so you don’t need a quorum. For example, Lynnfield has trouble getting a quorum. What happens is the people who come out are the people who have a particular interest that night. I like the representative Town Meeting form of government, and I think Town Meeting does a good job and never made a wrong decision in my entire career because Town Meeting is representative. It’s a democratic republic.
Q: So, you don’t think an open Town Meeting would work in Saugus?
A: I don’t like the idea of an open Town Meeting. The whole basis upon which our country was founded on was a representative form of government. I think you are more careful with your vote if you are representing people other than yourself. You’re not just voting for your own self-interests; so if you have an open Town Meeting, those people are only voting for their own self-interests. Those are the two changes that I’d like to see: staggered elections and a larger Town Meeting. When you have a town manager like we have now, you wouldn’t be able to keep him. You saw with the recall what happened when voters decided that selectmen weren’t acting properly. They got removed. That’s probably one of the biggest surprises I had in my career – that that recall was successful.
Q: It actually worked.
A: I never thought it would. To get that many signatures in 25 days, I just thought, was an insurmountable task. And they did, but it only shows you how strongly the people felt about that Board of Selectmen and how they were treating the town manager. And look, he’s still there, 10 years later. What does that tell you? But in my opinion – look at his record; look at the town’s bond rating. The bond rating saves the town a ton of money, when you can borrow money at such a low rate. And for years, we had very little in the stabilization funds. We couldn’t fund operating expenses. He [Crabtree] has found ways to do it, which is great. But being town manager is a seven-day-a-week job. It isn’t anything I ever had any aspirations about – not even for a split second.
Q: Looking back at the 42 years you served as town counsel, what’s the biggest thing you’ve seen?
A: I just think being part of municipal government and being part of the decision-making process – and giving advice. You’re advising for an entire town, acting in the best interests of the town. That’s a big client. I’ve really had the respect of employees and citizens. They haven’t all agreed with me all of the time. But to be respected, and, I said, my legacy would be that I hope to have a positive impact on whatever I deal with over the years.
It’s not easy. A lot of times, it’s a lot of pressure and you’re getting hit from all angles. You could see that at the Town Meeting. I had no idea what they were going to ask me last night. You try to field the questions and give them the right answer.
I think the hardest thing to deal with was the recall because I had a board that was not taking my advice. It was getting advice from some attorney who doesn’t really get paid by the town. He had cases against the town – Attorney Neil Rossman – and I told the selectmen that they didn’t have the basis to fire this town manager, but they didn’t want to hear that. Here’s a case where I gave them the right advice, but it was ignored. They didn’t have any basis to fire him. They just didn’t like him and they ran to get rid of him. That’s not grounds, because he had a contract. They had to honor his contract. They chose not to do that and the people spoke and the recall succeeded.
Had it failed, the manager wouldn’t have been able to stay there, and they’d have all sorts of lawsuits. There would have been a lot of damage to the town. We would have gone backwards instead of moving ahead. And it would have affected all of the taxpayers, between the lawsuits and the financial status of the town.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: It’s truly been an honor. If you think about it, this is the town I grew up in, and if I had a choice, I wouldn’t have done anything different. I like practicing law here and I want to continue being Town Counsel as long as my health prevails.
Q: Would you serve another 10 years?
A: I don’t want to make predictions and I don’t want to jinx myself. I don’t know. But if you love what you’re doing and you care about the town – and the town has changed – you want to keep going. I take my granddaughter down to Bucchiere Park on Bristow Street. It’s a beautiful playground. Beautiful. She’s from Chelmsford and she loves it. We didn’t have that before. Look at the parks. Look at the new high school.