Civil rights or uncivil debate? Sunday, November 11, 2007
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
It began when one set of neighbors got upset at a center for troubled youths planned on a nearby vacant lot.  Then a health clinic for poor people was proposed downtown, and some neighbors didn't like that either.  Neighbors weren't pleased when a methadone clinic opened a few blocks away, and there had been complaints for years about the emergency shelter that had been opened to keep the town's street people from freezing to death.

By the time an agency announced it had bought a 55-bed nursing home in a quiet middle-class neighborhood and would convert it to a residential treatment center for former drug addicts and their families, conditions were ripe for a fight.

Two years into the bruising battle that followed, Framingham's reputation has suffered a black eye, its civic fabric has been shredded and a lot of people are facing a huge lawsuit.  A town with a history of liberal politics and support for social services, the suit alleges, has been taken over by a vast conspiracy dedicated to violating the civil rights of people with disabilities.

How did Framingham get to this place? How dare SMOC - South Middlesex Opportunity Council, the biggest of the social service agencies operating in Framingham - try to make a crime out of expressing opinions and serving on town boards? Where do we go from here?

Those are the questions Framingham people are asking, and the answers are unlikely to come soon.

To those who have opposed the projects pushed by SMOC and other social service agencies, what happened in Framingham is a case of grassroots democracy in action.  They met their neighbors, formed organizations, put up Web sites, put political signs on their lawns.  They elected candidates sympathetic to neighborhood concerns, and those officials did their job.

The town appointed a committee to study the impact of social service agencies on taxpayers and town services.  It approved a bylaw providing for more scrutiny of new social service projects and a bylaw raising design standards for lodging houses.  The building inspector was told to be more strict in his interpretation of the regulations.  The Planning Board subjected SMOC's simple Winter Street project to the kind of gantlet major developers have had to run for years.

Meanwhile, an intense and often one-sided debate ensued in meetings, e-mails and Web site postings, constantly returning to the theme that Framingham had "more than its share" of programs catering to the sick, the disabled, the homeless and the addicted.

The critics won't concede that their town, home of a regional hospital, two regional colleges, a state prison, two regional courthouses, a regional Chamber of Commerce and a regional newspaper, must also be a regional center for social services.  Framingham has more than its share of jobs, stores, corporate headquarters and poor people, so of course it will have more than its share of what in a more charitable age were called charities.

Instead, the opponents worry about their home values.  They grouse about paying higher taxes because of all the social service agencies' tax-exempt property - which according to the study committee adds all of $24 a year on the taxes on a $400,000 home.

As can unfortunately be expected in the age of talk radio kooks and blog flamers, the discussion sometimes has gotten ugly.  E-mails and Web postings described some of SMOC's clients as "the dregs of society," accused the agency of being arrogant and secretive, and posted maps to the homes of two SMOC officials, along with a comment that one of them could find himself tarred and feathered.

But what to some looked like the rough-and-tumble of democracy looked to SMOC like an assault on the disabled.  Running a mall developer through extended planning board hearings is one thing, but when you make the approval process especially hard on someone building housing for disabled people - and drug addicts are considered disabled under federal law - that's discrimination.

When SMOC returned fire, it didn't hold back.  The organization brought a federal civil rights complaint against almost everyone who gave them trouble over the last two years: three out of five members of the Board of Selectmen, four Planning Board members, the town manager, building inspector and social services coordinator, Town Meeting members who led protests and served on the study committee and two individuals who posted nasty comments about SMOC on Web sites.

SMOC didn't just sue the town and its officials.  Each of the 15 named defendants is sued as an individual as well as in his or her official capacity.  Already, the defendants are running up legal bills.  They are studying their homeowners insurance policies to see if their liability coverage includes actions taken as a planning board member or selectman.

SMOC's lawsuit isn't frivolous.  The agency has hired a prominent Boston civil rights lawyer and a public relations consultant to handle this case.  The complaint is 99 pages long and the stack of exhibits that goes with it is three inches high.

For those who bother to read it, the complaint tells a sobering tale.  The political atmosphere fostered by the defendants focused hostility on SMOC's disabled clients, it says.  They were insulted and intimidated from the public process.  Town employees went out of their way to harass the agency and its clients.

The strongest part of the suit alleges that members of the Planning Board, goaded on by the other defendants, ignored warnings from town counsel and the state attorney general's office that the board could only do a narrow review of the Winter Street project.  It must limit itself to the parking plan, the board was told, or face a legal challenge based on federal laws governing the rights of the disabled and discrimination in housing.  But the board strayed far from the parking lot, repeatedly delving into SMOC programs, its legal status, the facility's interior design and other matters.  Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in SMOC legal expenses later, the facility still doesn't have a permanent occupancy permit.

SMOC vs. Framingham asks the town to think hard about the two years building up to the suit, a chapter that could be called Framingham vs. SMOC.  It's an opportunity for the great mass of reasonable, compassionate residents to consider whether the anti-social services crusade has been mean-spirited, destructive and disproportionate to the problem, whether in defending neighborhoods and town prerogatives, Framingham invited legal bills that will cost more than any tax-exempt social service facility.

The suit may be a chance for Framingham to look in the mirror, but it's hard to get reflective when someone's got a gun to your head.

SMOC's lawsuit is so aggressive it has shocked a lot of people who support human services.  If town officials do something illegal, they say, take the town to court.  The center for troubled youth sued, and won.  The health clinic is suing as well.  A recent debate over a group home for adults with the eating disorder Prater-Willi Syndrome, which has now opened without litigation, provided a lesson in the rights of disabled people to live in any neighborhood they want.

SMOC's suit is itself an assault on civic engagement.  It sees an elected official listening to the concerns of a constituent and labels it a civil conspiracy.  It turns the ordinary processes of municipal government - a study committee's report, a proposed new bylaw - into illegal actions.  It threatens with personal bankruptcy people whose only crime was to lobby town hall, serve on a committee or rant on a Web site.

SMOC's lawyers say all they did was file a complaint; it's up to a judge to set the punishment, but let's be real: A lawsuit is a punishment.  The lawyers' meters start running long before a case comes to court, and this one will cost a lot of people an awful lot of money, wherever it goes from here.

Can everyone concerned step back from the cliff and settle this before things get worse? It's possible, but while its leaders say they are willing to talk, SMOC's choice of lawyers and legal arguments indicate they may be more interested in setting state or national precedents than solving siting problems in Framingham.  Besides, by being overly broad, by targeting individuals as well as the town, SMOC has poisoned the well here in town.

SMOC would argue the well was poisoned long before the suit.  Neighbors refused to meet with them.  Town officials stopped negotiating.  Haters had taken over the public dialogue and people who shared the goal of running the disabled - and the organization that takes care of them - out of town had taken over key boards and the town administration.

SMOC has operated in Framingham for more than 40 years.  Its leaders know Framingham politics and must have concluded they can't change people's minds or elect sympathetic officials.  The backlash from the suit makes that even more certain.

There are sincere people of good will on both sides of this impasse, along with a lot of folks in the middle who see the damage this fight is doing to their town and would love to fix it.  But the middle has lost control in Framingham, and now everyone is going to pay.

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