Who Is Selectman George Simolaris of Billerica’s #PaintGate?

Meet the most talked about municipal official in Massachusetts.

Image via YouTube

Image via YouTube

These are the facts: Billerica Selectman George Simolaris, a house painter by trade, used green deck paint (green is significant here, as it’s Billerica’s de facto color) to cover five crosswalks in town. Simolaris—a vocal advocate of, among other things, pedestrian safety—was frustrated that the crosswalks had not yet been painted, and decided to take matters into his own hands. Despite pressure from his colleagues on the Board of Selectmen, Simolaris has refused to resign, and police are preparing to charge him with a misdemeanor.

As a result of his antics, Boston media outlets have descended upon America’s Yankee Doodle Town, giving the hamlet the most attention it has received since Boston 2024 announced it as home to a proposed venue for Olympic shooting. The story fits neatly into an olde-timey narrative of rogue civic duty. Some even compared Simolaris to Leslie Knope of Parks and Recreation. 

At my last gig, I covered Simolaris as the Billerica beat reporter for The Lowell Sun. To understand Simolaris, you must first go back to 2012. Former Woburn mayor and current Billerica Town Manager John Curran unveiled plans for a comprehensive revamping of the town center, whose traffic patterns, as anyone who’s driven through Billerica can attest, most closely resemble an unfinished M.C. Escher sketch. Simolaris set himself in firm opposition to the center project, and launched a grassroots campaign to defeat it, chronicled in a documentary called Homespun Rebellion.

But don’t let the crude plywood signs and musket fool you; Simolaris is not some Don Quixote of small-town politics. He gets results. Despite some questionable maneuvering by the Board of Selectmen in setting the date of a special election, Simolaris drove out the largest turnout in Billerica history to defeat Curran’s center plan. Simolaris rode that success to a seat on the board in April 2013.

Simolaris saw the center vote—which overturned an earlier vote by Town Meeting, Billerica’s legislative branch—as a mandate from the people. In the fall of 2014 Simolaris turned his attention to Town Meeting, which he believed no longer represented the will of the people. At its fall session, he presented a warrant article (think: bill) calling for the formation of an exploratory committee to discuss abolishing Town Meeting—the very body that would be voting on the measure. Unsurprisingly, it failed.

Then came the new high school project. With Billerica Memorial High School ever-increasingly showing its age, the town decided it would build a new one, and the Massachusetts Scholastic Building Authority (MSBA) would foot roughly half the bill. As the town’s high school building committee whittled down its options for a location to two sites, Simolaris resolutely declared that the new building ought to be on the high school’s current site, and nowhere else:

“If you guys pick this site, it’s not a threat … I will, guaranteed, use every legal means, whether it’s petition like the town center was, anything at all,” Simolaris said at the High School Building Committee Thursday night. “Mark my words on that. I will work my butt off for it.

“Don’t threaten us,” said Democratic Town Committee Chairman George Noel, seated in the audience.

“It’s not a threat. It’s a fact,” Simolaris said.

He penned a letter to the editor in The Sun, which he signed: “George Simolaris, Selectman.” He made an hourlong video, broadcasted on Billerica public access television, in which he laid out his case against the other site. Those shocked by police having to remove an unruly Simolaris supporter from Monday’s meeting over #PaintGate should know that such outbursts are hardly uncommon:

When an audience member called his statements “unethical,” Simolaris shouted back, “It is ethical. You’re unethical, yourself.”

“Don’t try to dull the public mind with your scare tactics!” Simolaris said to another audience member.

In the video titled “The Billerica Bugle with George Simolaris,” the selectman’s dogs accompany him to each site, providing every Billerica resident with a television or Internet connection proof of him breaking the town’s leash law. “I knew this was going to come up,” he told The Lowell Sun. “I was near the woods, and I let the dogs off their leash for a short time. I had the leash with me. If it was a violation of the leash law, I will be more careful next time.”

Meanwhile, folks in town grew worried that Simolaris’ antics would scare away the MSBA from doing business with Billerica, due to Simolaris speaking out against the project as a selectman, not as a private citizen. A non-binding petition requesting that Simolaris pipe down and allow the process to play out garnered roughly 500 signatures. Superintendent Tim Piwowar, directed by the School Committee, released an annotated transcript of Simolaris’ video, with 61 corrections and clarifications. “They don’t have the facts. I didn’t read those 60 corrections, but they don’t have the facts,” Simolaris responded. “I wasn’t trying to mislead anybody.”

In my final salvo before taking this job, I found that three town officials, including Simolaris, lived closer to the site he campaigned against than the State Ethics Commission allows:

For example, a property owner is presumed to have a financial interest in zoning changes, variances, nearby subdivision or development approvals, and roadway, sewerage or safety improvements.

Simolaris lives within 300 feet of Cider Mill Road, the site entrance. He may campaign against the Cider Mill properties as a private citizen only, not as a public official.

But he has done so at least twice. Simolaris wrote a letter to the editor, appearing in the March 12 edition of The Sun, which he signed, “George Simolaris, Billerica Selectman.” That same night, he appeared before the Building Committee, prefacing his public comments with “as a member of the Board of Selectmen.”

As my infinitely more capable replacement Rick Sobey discovered, Simolaris was on a list of Billerica town officials who had not yet completed a mandatory online conflict-of-interest exam. “Whoever keeps track of that should have notified me,” he told The Sun. “I didn’t know about updating the test, but I’m more than happy to do it as soon as possible. I’ll be more than happy to do it because my only interest is for the welfare of Billerica’s residents and, of course, I will take care of my duties as a selectman.”

That, more or less, is who George Simolaris is. While the selectman’s intentions are almost always good, his any-means-necessary approach lands him in hot water from time to time.