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Ashfield voters OK money for legal fees

ASHFIELD — Persuaded by town officials that they must respond to a series of Open Meeting Law complaints filed with the state, special town meeting voters have approved spending up to $12,000 more for legal counsel.

But they also asked town officials to find ways to reduce the number of complaints and public document requests that are eating up so much time and legal fees.

Last year, Ashfield budgeted $15,000 for legal fees, with $10,000 to cover legal costs from the past and $5,000 to cover routine legal costs through June 30.

But the town has less than $1,000 left to cover the rest of the fiscal year, according to Selectboard Chairman Thomas Carter. He said $3,490 was paid to town lawyer Donna MacNicol and another $577 went to Kopelman & Paige, when a second legal opinion had been required in one of the cases.

“At this point, there are nine Open Meeting Law accusations,” he said. “These are ongoing.”

He said the Selectboard and the Board of Health have received 11 or 12 Open Meeting Law complaints within the last 12 months, which require a written response to the state Attorney General’s Office.

Selectboard member Ron Coler said some of the filed complaints have alleged lack of timely submissions of minutes, agendas not being properly formatted and improper protocols for going into executive session.

“As lay people, we do the best we can,” said Coler. “A certain amount of latitude is usually afforded. But it’s that gray area that is the source of complaints.”

He went on to explain that once complaints go to the AG’s office, they are formally listed, and that there’s “a lot of bureaucracy, back and forth, tied up in these accusations.”

So far, only one of these complaints, about an executive session at a March 2012 Board of Health meeting, has been resolved.

The separate complaints were filed by Suzanne Corbett, Sherrill Jourdan and Deborah Nicholson. Corbett is the former owner of the Ashfield House, which is now owned by the Franklin Regional Housing Authority and provides subsidized housing for those who are income-eligible. Corbett and Nicholson began attending Board of Health and Selectboard meetings a few years ago to discuss complaints about conditions there.

A few special town meeting voters asked if those who filed the complaints could explain the reason for filing so many, but the complainants were not present.

In a subsequent email to The Recorder, Corbett said: “When members of Ashfield town government blatantly refuse to comply with state law, I will not hesitate to exercise the rights afforded me as a citizen, under the law — in the case of the Open Meeting Law, filing a written complaint.”

“My overall goal is merely to ensure that the citizens ... have an open and transparent government, as is required. If the elected officials continue failing to comply, I will continue utilizing the only avenue of redress available to me, filing written complaints with the Attorney General’s Office.”

She continued: “If certain elected officials are concerned about the cost and time it takes to respond to my complaints, there is an inexpensive solution: they should start following the law. Problem solved!”

Sherrill Jourdan, who filed three of the complaints, said she has witnessed “how certain citizens are treated and discarded” at Selectboard and Board of Health meetings.

“Filing a complaint is my right when the boards have lost their ability to govern with transparency and with a democratic process in place,” she said. “I expect an elected official ... to leave their personal feelings outside when conducting town business. Each board member represents all the citizens of Ashfield, not just those they agree with, socialize with or work with. It seems certain board members have lost their moral compass by targeting certain citizens who are actually whistle-blowers. ... If they continue to violate the statutes, I will continue to file complaints with the AG’s office.”

When asked if the town could face more costs and fines, Carter said: “It’s a terrible answer, but we really don’t know. I think, if someone was out there just running rogue, there could be penalties. I get really invested in this; it’s really embarrassing that, in a town of 1,800 people, we have to send a whole lot of documents to the A.G. first — that the first attack is to file an accusation that costs us money.”

When asked if there was a way to eliminate “frivolous complaints,” Coler pointed out that “these complaints are not frivolous to those who filed them.” He said anyone has the right to file and is protected under law.

Coler said there is something called “abuse-of-process,” a charge leveled at someone for deliberately tying up government, but that such a charge is hard to prove.

“I don’t see these requests as frivolous; I see them as malicious,” said Bill Perlman, a former selectman. “I believe this is an abuse of the process.” Perlman said the Franklin Regional Housing Authority and Franklin Regional Council of Governments have received similar complaints and requests for documents by the same group. “It’s well-coordinated and disruptive of these three agencies,” he said.

In addition to the legal fees, voters also OK’d $3,000 more to pay for town employees’ time to handle paperwork for both the legal complaints and for public document requests.

The town charges 20 cents per page for paper documents, but about half the time, those making requests don’t accept the paperwork after they find out what it will cost. Board of Health member Susan Clark said she has a 500-page document that she spent eight hours putting together, in response to a public document request, that no one ever picked up.

Tiertza-leah Schwartz proposed an amendment that the town set up a fee structure for repeat complainants to help offset town costs. But Coler and Finance Committee member Ted Murray said there is no fee structure for an Open Meeting Law complaint. Coler said such a fee could be seen as discriminatory, based on people’s ability to pay. The amendment was defeated.

Selectboard member Paullete Leukhardt suggested posting board meeting minutes on the town’s website, as a way of cutting down on public document requests that have to be handled by town personnel.

She also pointed out that the state recently produced an Open Meeting Law “cheat sheet” that could be distributed to boards, to help them better follow correct protocol.

Voters approved taking $5,000 from its “free cash” surplus to replenish the town’s legal fees budget and to put aside $7,000 from free cash for a “Special Legal Expense” account, that would be used only for the Open Meeting Law and public document requests. If this second sum isn’t used, it will go back into the town’s general funds.

Another $3,000 was approved to pay for town personnel time, since the town’s executive administrative assistant is only authorized to work 25 hours per week.

Voters approved money transfers from existing town accounts on the following:

∎ $3,300 for the Fire Department, as a matching grant for accepting a Fire Department Forestry Matching Grant, which will help to pay for a floating pump, for brush fires, and a trailer for hauling equipment.

∎ $4,500 to the tree warden, for a contractor to take down dead trees and broken branches.

∎ $6,700 from other police line items to go into police expenses for extra work this winter.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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