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Ashfield needs cash for legal fees

Complaints, requests for documents add up

ASHFIELD — Complaints by a small group of residents about the openness, or lack thereof, by town government is giving officials a headache and adding to their legal bills.

Because of increased complaints about alleged Open Meeting Law violations, special town meeting voters will be asked tonight to add $12,000 to this year’s legal expenses and $3,000 to cover town employee time required to handle the paperwork.

“Our regular legal account is totally empty,” explained Selectboard Chairman Thomas Carter. He said the Selectboard decided to replenish the regular account, because more bills are expected to come in from town counsel for work related to a series of open meeting law complaints.

Carter said he believes that at least nine open meeting law complaints have been filed against the town since last March, although none he knows of have resulted in a finding against the town.

“Lately, there was one Open Meeting Law accusation that was about one (complaint) we had already addressed — and the people that filed it felt (the town’s response to the attorney general) wasn’t adequate enough. It’s kind of repeating,” he said.

“It’s a mess,” he added. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Carter said most of the complaints had been filed by four people.

“In a town of less than 2,000 people, I don’t understand why people don’t make an appointment (with the Selectboard) and explain what their problem is,” he said.

According to the town’s “Open Meeting Law Complaint Index” 13 complaints have been filed by three residents who have brought health and public safety concerns about the Ashfield House to the Board of Health and the Selectboard over the past two years.

The complaints cite alleged violations ranging from improper posting of executive sessions to deliberations held outside the public meetings, through conversations between individual Selectboard members to the town administrator.

One complaint holds that police department performance issues were discussed in open session, without giving officers 48 hours notice and the option of an executive session. The Selectboard’s response was that job performance is an allowable topic in open session.

Another complaint concerns a contentious meeting in September, in which Selectboard members raised their voices during heated debate and one member was asked to leave the meeting by a police officer. The complaint accused then-Chairman Douglas Field of violating both open meeting law and the rights of fellow board member Paullette Leukhardt by nodding his head at the officer, who then approached Leukhardt, and placed a hand on her arm. In their rebuttal, Selectboard members said Leukhardt was not ordered to leave, and the meeting continued with all present. Leukhardt did not sign the board’s response to the attorney general’s office about the complaints, however, siting “conflict of interest.”

These complaints were submitted to the Attorney General’s Office, and they require a written response from town officials or from town council. There is a lot of paperwork involved.

The second special town meeting article, for a Special Legal Expense, would be used just for the Open Meeting Law complaints .

A third article calls for a $3,000 “special project staffing fund,” to pay town employees for the extra time required to handle the extra paperwork, document requests and other tasks related to the complaints.

“We’ve got to put money in,” said Carter. “When people file these complaints, we have to respond.”

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