Analysis: Tradition, Fairness Suggest Returning Toohey

Shaun P. Toohey came in fourth for three available school committee seats in November.

Officials Should Name Toohey to School Committee Without Delay Tuesday

The only thing missing is the notorious smoke-filled room in the behind-the-scenes jockeying to fill the Haverhill School Committee seat vacated Friday by now-City Councilor Joseph J. Bevilacqua.

Although there is tradition—on both the city council and school committee—of filling vacancies with the next highest vote-getter, some seem reluctant to let Shaun P. Toohey be seated. He served the school committee for 12 years until losing in November in an unusual race crowded with well-known names.

City Clerk Linda L. Koutoulas last week analyzed past school committee vacancies under the city’s current form of government, which dates back to 1967. In all cases, where the vacancy occurred after a city election, the next highest vote-getter was named to the seat.

“I have researched past instances where a school committee member resigned before the end of their term and have determined that in the last four instances this happened (1971-1993), three of these times the seat was filled by the fourth place finisher of the most recent election,” Koutoulas observed. Her research notes Richard Langlois, the runner up in the 1971 election, completed the unexpired term of School Committeeman Edward Kimball. In 1980, Glen A. Lewandowski, the runner up in the 1979 school committee election, filled the unexpired term of Manuel M. Epstein. Finally, in 1994, Lewandowski—who lost re-election in 1993 and placed fourth—was tapped to fill the unexpired term of Roland Boucher. The one exception occurred in 1973 because the resignation of School Committeeman Hugh Kelleher took place before that year’s municipal election. As such, a special election was timely and added to that year’s ballot.

During the most recent vacancy on the city council, caused by the resignation of Sven A. Amirian in 2012, the next highest ballot finisher, Thomas J. Sullivan, took the seat.

If not tradition, then fairness should be the deciding factor. Toohey has experience, including representing Haverhill five years on the Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School Committee. Beyond this, he should serve since he actually made the effort—and spent the money—to seek voters’ support during the most recent election.

Difficult to Identify Ulterior Motives Through the Cloud

Former Haverhill City Councilor William H. Ryan.

Former Haverhill City Councilor William H. Ryan.

Others are suspiciously ignoring precedent and wrangling to find alternative reasons why Toohey shouldn’t be seated.

One of these reasons relates to the timing of Bevilacqua’s resignation. Had he resigned before November’s election—the logic goes—the next highest vote-getter would be former School Committeeman Raymond Sierpina. Sierpina, a former Tilton School principal, came in fifth out of three available seats in November, 2013. The fourth place winner, Gail M. Sullivan, was actually the fourth highest finisher, but she won a seat this time around.

Another argument, purportedly citing an exception to the next highest vote-getter policy, concerns former School Committee member Erin Francescone, who missed meetings in 2007 because of serious illness. In this instance, Francescone’s seat was not vacated and no replacement was named. She ultimately returned—committee minutes show her participating in 2009—and completed her term. She did not seek re-election that fall.

It is not clear why some are looking past Toohey. Is it some backhanded slap at Toohey’s father-in-law, William H. Ryan—who also lost his seat on the city council? Or, his Republican challenge to Democratic Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives in 2014? Maybe, it is simply an opportunity for some, as yet, unidentified politico waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering has forced Haverhill Mayor James J. Fiorentini, rumored to support tradition and naming Toohey, to craft delicate, lengthy and likely unnecessary procedures for moving forward.

No Shroud Over Other Candidates

City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan.

City Councilor Thomas J. Sullivan supports returning Shaun P. Toohey to the Haverhill School Committee.

None of this analysis should be construed to suggest any of the other candidates seeking the seat are complicit in a conspiracy to deprive Toohey of the post.

Unsuccessful city council candidate Katrina Hobbs-Everett was the first to quietly express interest in filling the expected vacancy in November. Since then, License Commission Chairman Joseph C. Edwards, former School Committeewoman Susan D. Danehy and former Haverhill High Classical Academy Dean Deborah Sasso-Flanagan have said they would fill the position if asked. Besides Sierpina, other rumored names include unsuccessful 2011 school committee candidate Gene Zylkuski.

If Toohey had decided he did not wish to be considered or, if for some strange reason, other elected officials were hell-bent on not returning him, these other candidates should be applauded for stepping forward.

That is not the case, however. As Councilor Sullivan suggested last Tuesday night, Fiorentini, city councilors and school committee members should dispense with Tuesday’s planned “workshop” and name Toohey. To do anything else would be an insult to the democratic process. Voters cast 3,503 votes for Toohey.

In a sense, it is a shame Bevilacqua didn’t resign sooner so Toohey could have been seated last Thursday and continued his service without interruption. Bevilacqua told WHAV Open Mike Show listeners last Monday he planned to participate in the election of school committee officers. He apparently changed his mind before Thursday’s expected organizational meeting. His plan to cast votes for officers raised eyebrows and set into motion speculation about his motives.

If tobacco smoking were still common practice, there would be quite a cloud wafting out of city hall windows.

4 thoughts on “Analysis: Tradition, Fairness Suggest Returning Toohey

  1. Fairness implies that the seat should go to a person who actually ran in the race and was the next highest vote getter. Simple logic and fair. No committee should appoint a candidate to the seat. We have a democratic process, voting, not an oligarchy, appointing.

    • Exactly!!
      The significance of someone casting a vote on a ballot is much important than a silly tradition.
      If Toohey had any humility he wouldn’t even be going after the job. The guy has no class….