Editorial: Judge's plea: Settle the SMOC suit September 12, 2010
Rick Holmes Metrowest Daily News
No one can say it was a rush to judgment. Federal Judge Douglas P. Woodlock waited more than a year after hearing the arguments before ruling that SMOC's lawsuit against Framingham and its officials had sufficient merit to be heard by a jury.

Woodlock probably hoped Framingham and the South Middlesex Opportunity Council would settle their differences while he deliberated, but the opposite happened. Each side, convinced its position would be strengthened by Woodlock's ruling on Framingham's motion for summary judgment, resisted pleas from several quarters - this page included - that they put this divisive, expensive dispute behind them.

SMOC v. Framingham carries emotional and political baggage that goes well beyond the specific complaints. The lawsuit concerns statements made and actions taken that delayed the approval of two SMOC programs: Sage House, a residential program for recovering drug addicts and their families, and Larry's Place, which provides housing and support services for disabled veterans. The larger context includes concerns that Framingham is bearing more than its share of social service programs, that SMOC and other non-profit agencies are too powerful, that the presence of their clients hurts the town, and that the lawsuit threatens the free speech of residents and town officials.

But the two programs have been up and running for well over a year. The laws governing the siting of non-profit facilities won't be changed by the lawsuit. For all practical purposes, taking the case to trial won't change anything, regardless of which side comes out on top.

The only winners are the lawyers, some of the most highly regarded and highly compensated attorneys in Boston. Framingham has already spent at least $750,000 on this suit; SMOC has likely spent more. Taking it to trial will cost hundreds of thousands more, even if no penalties are assessed.

Those who bluster that money is no object when it comes to defending Framingham's sovereignty should consider Framingham's new school busing policy, which requires youngsters to walk as far as two miles to school. That policy, loudly protested by parents, is expected to save $500,000, which is two-thirds of what Town Meeting has wasted fighting SMOC. What programs will have to be cut next to pay for litigating this further?

Those who expected Woodlock to declare SMOC had neither the evidence nor the legal grounds to back up its case should think again. The judge's 100-page decision makes it clear he doesn't consider this lawsuit frivolous. After examining each of 46 statements SMOC charged was defamatory, he threw out just four.

If the suit proceeds to trial, a jury will decide on the facts, but it will be Woodlock who assesses penalties. He has made it clear this should have been settled long ago, and will have little sympathy for those who have drawn out the process.

The judge is also aware of the toll this fight has taken on Framingham's community spirit. In his opinion, he notes the "coarsening of civic discourse and the obstruction of the orderly process of civic governance" shown in the evidence. He closes his decision with a plea stated as a hope:

"The parties seem bitterly entrenched in their respective positions," he writes. "Perhaps at this point, with the potential for increased costs - both economic and personal - looming and the ultimate outcome by no means certain, more measured and sensible voices will come to the fore and less belligerent roles will be assumed in an effort to resolve this matter by some alternative to accumulating additional litigation expenses."

Framingham and SMOC should take Judge Woodlock's advice. It's time for responsible leaders to settle this case.

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