Jul 28, 2014

UPDATED: Planning Board Member Files Open Meeting Law Complaint

Bob Joyce has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's office.

Planning Board member Bob Joyce has submitted a complaint to the state alleging the Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law Monday night.

Joyce said a meeting was held Monday night in which neighbors of the proposed Center Fire Station on Billerica Road were invited to and offer objections. Joyce said the meeting was attended by "several Permanent Building Committee members, four members of the Board of Selectmen," Fire Chief Mike Curran and Town Manager Paul Cohen.

Joyce argues that the public is not privy to whatever testimony was heard from the residents, which the Board of Selectmen will use in the future to make decisions.

"I believe this was an intentional violation so that the public would not be aware of any opposition to the Fire Station plan," Joyce wrote in his complaint. "I believe the Board of Selectmen violated the Open Meeting Law ... and the Permanent Building Committee may have violated the law as well."

In his complaint, Joyce suggests the meeting should be re-posted and abutters re-invited to discuss their concerns in a public session. Minutes of the meeting should be taken, he said, and town officials should be reprimanded. 

Cohen said the invitation to meet with neighbors of the fire station came from him and his office alone, and although a quorum of selectmen were present at the meeting, it was for observational purposes and did not need to be posted as a meeting.

Cohen said the town manager is not a board and therefore does not have to abide by the Open Town Meeting law.

Cohen compared the Monday night meeting to a hypothetical informational meeting with people at the Senior Center or another event, such as a candidate fundraising party. In instances like this, Cohen said a quorum of the Board of Selectmen is present but that is not considered a meeting that needs to be posted publicly under the Open Meeting Law.  "Those kind of things are not meetings," Cohen said.

"Bob ... has 30 days to make the complaint and it disappoints me he wouldn’t take more time to do his due diligence to look at the meeting with me, asking me or members of the Board of Selectmen so he can understand what (happened) and he elected not to do that," said Cohen. "Why is it shoot first and ask questions later? Why not take courtesy to learn more about it and ask who he's accusing?"

Cohen said the meeting was a way for him to talk to neighbors about their concerns with the fire station, and although he had made selectmen aware of it, Cohen was unaware three selectmen or the two co-chairmen of the Permanent Building Committee would be there.

"What if I had instead walked around the neighborhood? Should I have brought Bob with me? It was a chance to talk to the (neighbors) about (the project)," Cohen said. "I thought it was important enough to speak directly with the neighbors. I think selectmen should be applauded for going and listening, and that’s what it was. George Dixon, Jim Lane and Pat Wojtas sat and listened, probably to evaluate the town manager and they wanted to hear first-hand the discussion." 

Joyce said Cohen's comparison to walking around the neighborhood to get comments is a different situation. Joyce said Cohen wouldn't have had members of the Board of Selectmen or the fire chief or Permanent Building Committee members with him.

"I read the letter (to the residents) and he said public officials would consider their opinions," Joyce said. "If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, I think it’s a duck. (Selectman) Jon Kurland said I have 30 days to file (a complaint) and that’s fine but I wanted to file now because this is an issue and it'll be on the ballot in less than 30 days."

Joyce said in the end, the Board of Selectmen is going to consider things that were said at that meeting. 

"Even at the Permanent Building Committee meeting, they threw out some things like, we might put a buffer at edge of the road so the lights don’t shine into windows...that’s all stuff that's being considered and I should have been able to listen to that," said Joyce. "I'm not opposed to a new fire station, we need a new station. But I don't believe that's the right place and this is the right plan."

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