NORTH SMITHFIELD – In 2016, longtime North Smithfield Conservation Commission member Paul Soares discussed his work with a local newspaper, sharing photos of himself balancing on ice to clean and maintain duck boxes for hours during the winter.
In an interview, Soares explained it was just one of many hands-on activities for a board with a volunteer mission of protecting the town’s natural resources. The seven member commission team, he said, had many long-standing volunteers, who not only provided advisory opinions on conservation issues, but also maintained and beautified several town properties, and could regularly be found, “using their own tools, vehicles and equipment to rake leaves, clear brush, install signs or build picnic tables.”
From fighting back beaver dams at Cedar Swamp that cause flooding, to speaking out against developments not in sync with conservation values and sound environmental policy, the board was among the most active and vocal in town.
Six years later, North Smithfield’s Conservation Commission has five active members – and none have more than a few years experience. This month, member Steven Berenback appeared before the Town Council to plea to have the group’s bylaws approved to create some continuity and a clearer focus.
“The council has been unable to fill the full seven members of the commission for almost two years now,” Berenback told councilors. “Part of the reason, in our estimation, is that citizens do not know what we do.”
The downfall for the once-active commission dates back to December of 2019, when a three-year term held by then Chairman Soares, a member for 14 years, expired. Vice Chairman Mike Calo, a member for ten years, and Glenn Vario, who had served for five, also had expiring terms, and all three were seeking reappointment. At the time, former member Scott Perry had recently moved out of town, leaving one seat vacant.
But former Town Administrator Gary Ezovski, who had authority over the appointments, left the board short four members for several weeks, advertising the roles while asking for more time to consider his options. After multiple delays, Soares, Calo and Vario had enough, submitting resignations.
The remaining members Carol Ayala, Denis Chamberland and Jeff Delasanta resigned in solidarity, saying they felt their work was not appreciated.
This month, Berenback recalled taking his seat on the commission the following month, in January of 2020.
“We joined wanting to contribute our time and energy but struggled with what we were about,” Berenback said. “Basically, we looked across the table from one another wondering what is it we’re supposed to be doing and how do we go about doing it.”
Only Berenback and Conservation Chairman Johnathan Depault remain of the team appointed by Ezovski to fill those vacancies just two years ago. In that time, Berenback said the board has never operated with a full seven-member contingency.
Several months ago, Berenback, who has served as commission secretary since February of 2021, said the board drafted bylaws in hopes that the Town Council would review and adopt the document. He noted that Town Solicitor David Igliozzi told him that municipal boards in North Smithfield do not have the authority to independently adopt their own bylaws.
“The Town Council has not acted on our request and from the very limited feedback our chair has received, we are concerned that our request is being disregarded,” Berenback said. “The bylaws have not been placed on the council agenda, and we are frustrated and disappointed that our elected town officials appear to us to not be in communicative, transparent or forthcoming about the delay or the reasons why the proposed bylaws or some modified version of them are not being considered.”
Berenback made an impassioned speech laying out the need for bylaws, pointing out that volunteers join the commission with widely varying amounts of experience and knowledge.
“Bylaws are necessary for the efficient and effective conduct of the commission,” he said. “Rules and procedures are needed in order to conduct discussion, to affect action, to resolve conflicts. Indeed, there must be rules and procedures to help us work together at all.”
Berenback noted that the group was invited to a Town Council meeting last October, but both officers were out of town at the time and unable to attend.
“There has been no subsequent invite,” he said, noting such a document would have been “invaluable,” to the group sitting around the table wondering what to do two years ago.
Contacted this week, Soares told NRI NOW that he left behind two portable filing cabinets full of commission information with Ezovski’s town clerk when he resigned in 2019.
“I don’t know that it ever got into their hands,” Soares said, noting that he also offered to help with the transition as new members were named to the commission in 2020. “No one ever got in touch with me.”
He notes the properties once cared for with volunteer commission labor – Monica’s Garden and Cedar Swamp – were a mess for some time following the resignations. He brought the issue to current Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski’s attention and believes the grassy area of the land is now maintained by paid staff with the Department of Public Works. Other work such as cutting back brush and clearing trails and roads on conservation property remains undone.
“I know no one is doing any of that,” Soares said.
And the area where Soares once waged his battle against beaver dams?
“They tell me that it’s flooded considerably,” he said.
Soares noted he continues to care for duck boxes, a project he started as conservation chairman on request from the state Department of Natural Resources.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “I like being outdoors.”
Soares said that Zwolenski and others have tried to convince him to rejoin the commission but, “I felt like I had enough. I dedicated 14 years to the Conservation Commission. I’m past that.”
“During my tenure as chair on the Conservation Commission, we had very little turnover, and mostly it was people who moved out of town,” Soares said. “We were a really good, cohesive group. and we worked well together unlike other town groups that struggle to keep membership.”
As for the current commission, Town Council President John Bearegard told Berenback that the group will be invited to a meeting in May, noting the council has had several busy months since October.
“I think, since then, you might have gotten lost in the shuffle,” Beauregard said.