Framingham, SMOC to try mediation again October 5, 2010
Danielle Ameden 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Taking a judge's advice, the town and South Middlesex Opportunity Council are headed back to mediation.

The sides are scheduled to meet privately next Wednesday to try settling the anti-discrimination lawsuit SMOC filed against the town in 2007.

A retired federal judge, Charles Swartwood, with the JAMS Foundation in Boston, is expected to guide negotiations at a neutral location. JAMS is a private organization that provides what is called alternative dispute resolution, or help in out-of-court settlements.

"Fingers are crossed," said Town Meeting member Herb Chasan, who has informally worked to bring an end to the dispute. "God knows what's going to happen there."

A first formal attempt at mediation was scrapped in January 2008, after two days at the table. At the time, SMOC, a nonprofit social service agency, said it was disappointed, while the attorney representing several town officials said the "low expectations we had for mediation were realized."

Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock urged the sides to work out their differences to avoid a costly trial.

A status conference is scheduled for Oct. 28 in federal court in Boston, and a joint status report is due to the judge by Oct. 21.

Representatives from SMOC and the town declined comment yesterday on their goals for mediation.

Town Manager Julian Suso issued a statement last month, following a court ruling, that said the town welcomed "the court's forceful exhortation that the parties make every attempt to settle.

"This places on all parties the responsibility to work in good faith to attempt to resolve the matter in order to spare the community, and all the parties, the various costs and burdens associated with moving this matter forward," the statement read.

The town has already put $750,000 into its legal defense.

Woodlock encouraged a settlement last month when he rejected the town's request to throw out the case.

In a 100-page decision, he ruled SMOC has evidence that suggests a pattern of interference or intentional discrimination. That evidence, he wrote, "may ultimately demonstrate that certain defendants, through abusive communications and improper efforts to manipulate the municipal permitting process," broke laws that protect people with disabilities such as alcoholism and addiction from having access to housing and treatment programs.

SMOC claims the town tried to block or stall SMOC's plans to relocate and expand its Sage House, a home for recovering drug addicts and their families, and to open Larry's Place, a shelter for disabled veterans.

The current defendants, named individually, are selectmen Dennis Giombetti, Jason Smith, Ginger Esty and Laurie Lee (whose role was Town Meeting member in 2007), Planning Board members Sue Bernstein, Carol Spack, Andrea Carr-Evans and Ann Welles (who is now off the board), and Town Meeting members Peter Adams, Cynthia Laurora and Steven Orr.

Last year, the town rejected a settlement offer SMOC proposed.

While the agency offered to drop the lawsuit with no money changing hands, the town refused to accept the proposed conditions. Those included the formation of two commissions, with representatives from the town and private social services. One would work to improve relations between the town and social service agencies and the other would review local zoning bylaws.

"It's possible to come out with a good agreement," Chasan said.

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