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Amherst-Pelham School Committee hit with Open Meeting complaint

AMHERST — An Amherst man has filed a complaint with the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee claiming members of the board violated the state’s Open Meeting Law when they met in defiance of then-chairman Lawrence O’Brien to discuss a controversial reprimand of committee member Amilcar Shabazz in July.

In the complaint, Thomas Flittie of Ridgecrest Road singles out member Trevor Baptiste, who has since been elected to replace O’Brien as chairman of the school board, for holding the meeting July 14, which Flittie says was not posted in Amherst, one of the four towns that make up the regional district.

State law requires that a meeting involving a quorum of the members of a government body be publicized at least 48 hours in advance of the session. Baptiste, who was vice chairman of the committee at the time, requested July 9 that the town clerks in all four towns post a notice of the meeting. All four did, but then were asked by O’Brien to remove the posting. O’Brien said that as chairman, he was the only one authorized to call a meeting and that he had no intention to do so. After consulting with the town’s legal counsel, Amherst Assistant Town Clerk Susan Audette attached a “canceled” label to the meeting’s listing on the town’s website. Town clerks in the other communities — Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury — left the posting up as Baptiste had submitted it.

Discussion of the complaint is on the agenda for the School Committee’s meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Amherst Regional High School library.

Baptiste said Monday that he has been attempting to contact Flittie to invite him to present his complaint directly to the board Tuesday. “That way we can address him right there and then send whatever we have to the AG,” he said. Baptiste contends the meeting was legal and said he explains his reasoning in a letter he will present to the board for consideration. “We’ll see whether it passes muster as our response,” he said. He declined to detail his defense of the meeting before the board discusses it.

The School Committee has 14 days from the date Flittie’s complaint was filed Aug. 12 to review it and send a copy to the state attorney general’s office along with an explanation of action to resolve the issue. A process follows that allows the person filing the complaint to appeal to the attorney general’s office if the individual is not satisfied.

Flittie, who is a self-employed contractor, did not return phone messages, but in his complaint, he said that Baptiste convened the meeting “with full knowledge that it had not been posted (in Amherst) which seems to indicate that the violation was intentional and premeditated.” He asks that any action taken at the meeting, and its minutes, be voided. He also requests that the record of its posting in the other towns be voided.

O’Brien said he is awaiting Baptiste’s response, but would welcome a definitive ruling by the attorney general’s office about who has the authority to call a meeting. He pointed out that although the School Committee handbook states it is the responsibility of the chairman, the Open Meeting Law does not explicitly address the issue. Still, he said, the town’s legal counsel advised the town clerk’s office to follow O’Brien’s directive as chairman.

“Is the way the town clerk’s office handled this posting the proper way to interpret it?” he asked. “None of us should take it personally, and I’m sure Trevor isn’t. Our committee has indicated we’re moving forward and I’m on board with that. But I think it’s important for the committee and future committees to have that determination made.”

The meeting in question, attended by five of the Regional School Committee’s nine members, was held in the Pelham library and drew at least 50 people as well as reporters from local newspapers, TV stations and websites. On the agenda was the memo sent to members of the Schools Equity Task Force, which is examining racial issues in the schools, chastising Shabazz, its chairman, for allegedly referring to a white middle school student beaten by three black students as racist.

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.

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