Town Meeting's power limited

Town Meeting's power limited September 23, 2010
John Kahn, Framingham Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- A recent writer (Sept. 17) cautioned the "only one who can settle (the SMOC suit) for the Town is Town Meeting and/or the voters in a referendum on any Town Meeting vote." That advice is not necessarily the last word on the subject. That is just as well.

It is important to remember that even Town Meeting's authority is limited by Town bylaws. Moreover, Town Meeting's record in such matters does not guarantee that it will make the right decision.

The Board of Selectmen, not Town Meeting, are empowered to "defend all suits brought against the Town and may settle any claim or suit which does not require the payment of more than twenty five thousand dollars..." If SMOC honors its prior declaration that it will not seek monetary damages in its suit, the Town by-laws appear to place responsibility for a non-monetary settlement with the Selectmen alone, if they have the fortitude to face it.

Town Meeting may give or refuse funds to pay lawyers to carry on a lawsuit. Recently Town Meeting appropriated $250,000 for the SMOC suit without insisting upon an explanation whether that had already been spent or would be spent for future services. Before making an appropriation of that amount for any other purpose Town Meeting would have required at least that iota of information.

Town Meeting has occasionally spent taxpayers' money to support passing passionate preferences (or prejudices). Some years ago, Town Meeting appropriated money to purchase the south side Cedar Swamp even though the only purpose was to prevent its development for low-income housing. It remains a swamp to this day.

Town Meeting feared the impact on the Town's culture of an influx of transients and prohibited apartments on Rte. 9. That led to a persistent housing monopoly in favor of the Rte. 9 landlords. More recently, Town Meeting instructed the Selectmen to oppose a methadone treatment center off Concord Street. Investigation found there were no defensible grounds for such opposition and the Selectmen declined the instruction.

In summary, even Town Meeting and/or the voters must act within the limits of the law. The recent decision in the SMOC suit cautions Town officials not to exceed their authority, Town Meeting should not be encouraged to become an accomplice in this case in what the Court has said may be shown to be a pattern of discrimination in violation of state and federal law.

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