Agency chief sees town bias
But officials reject charge over permit
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Boston Globe West
The head of Framingham's largest social services agency is accusing the town of discriminating against people with disabilities by rejecting a permit for a residential drug treatment program.

The town's action is a violation of federal law because those battling drug addictions are considered disabled and protected under the Fair Housing Act, said James T. Cuddy, executive director of the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, which is seeking to open the program.

"We are not going to take the town's actions lying down," he said in a telephone interview last week.  "They're violating the rights of children and families. . . .  We believe these actions that have been taken are discriminatory and we question their legality."

Katie Murphy, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said she was surprised by Cuddy's statements.

"That sounds pretty aggressive against a town that's been pretty welcoming," she said, referring to the town's record of accepting social service programs.  "I'm very proud to live in a community that's stepped up to the plate far more than its neighbors.  That's pulling out the big guns.  Wow."

The council serves about 20,000 people annually through a variety of programs.  It employs about 500 people and owns 82 properties in town

Cuddy was referring not only to the rejection last month of a permit for the drug treatment program on Winter Street, but also the underlying legal change that led to the rejection.

On Aug. 3, Town Meeting voted to amend a bylaw so that social service programs would be required to undergo Planning Board review.

Building commissioner Joseph R. Mikielian rejected the Winter Street proposal, ruling, among other things, that it was covered by the new bylaw and had not received the required Planning Board scrutiny.

Cuddy said he hopes to decide by the end of the week what to do next.  The council's attorney is studying whether to file a complaint through federal courts or the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said.  The council is also looking into challenging the recent bylaw change through the state attorney general's office, he said.

Murphy said she felt the town was within its rights in denying the permit, but said the town counsel would be looking at the issue.

Town Counsel Christopher Petrini defended the bylaw, saying it was not directed against the Winter Street property even if it was partly inspired by controversy over that proposal.  It was also a response to "an influx in recent years of social service agencies," he said, over which the town feels it needs some control.

"It's my view that the bylaw that was passed was a bylaw of general applicability," said Petrini.

"The building commissioner's decision is not one that would forever deny the application," he added.

On its website, the Department of Justice states that towns must not treat people with disabilities differently than others when making land-use decisions.

It says in part: "Some individuals with disabilities may live together in congregate living arrangements, often referred to as 'group homes. ' The Fair Housing Act prohibits municipalities and other local government entities from making zoning or land-use decisions or implementing land-use policies that exclude or otherwise discriminate against individuals with disabilities."

People who are recovering from drug addictions are considered to be people with disabilities under federal law, according to Stan Eichner, director of litigation for the Disability Law Center.

"Under the federal Fair Housing Act . . . cities and towns are required to reasonably accommodate those programs that serve people with disabilities," he said.  "If such an organization can show that the policies and practices of the town have a discriminatory effect on individuals with disabilities, then that would state a claim under the federal Fair Housing Act."

"Basically, the federal law was amended in 1988," he continued, "and one of its intended goals was to ensure that what had been historical resistance or antagonism to people living in a community was addressed, and the Fair Housing Act has been liberally interpreted to accomplish those goals."  The council has experienced controversies before, but this year has been the most challenging period for the agency, Cuddy said.

"Has this been the most intense? Yeah," said Cuddy.  "I can only speculate as to why -- I'm not sure."

The council is under fire in Framingham and Worcester, with both communities saying they are providing far more than their fair share of social services, plus the council gets a tax break on many of its properties.

Both communities have set up committees to examine the impact of social service agencies.

Cuddy said what really bothers him is the personal attacks.

A local website has listed his home address, and he said he has received anonymous written threats more than once in the last six months, including one last month.

He said he has reported the threats to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but he declined to comment further.

Those threats, he said, had nothing to do with a local anti-illegal immigration group that recently acknowledged it had sent him a brochure that included a picture of a decomposed body.

Cuddy said he did not recall seeing the brochure, produced by Concerned Citizens and Friends of Illegal Immigration Law Enforcement.

Jim Rizoli, a member of that group, said the brochure contained the picture of a body to highlight the risk that immigrants take when trying to sneak into the United States.

The brochure was sent not as a threat, but to educate Cuddy, Rizoli said.

Cuddy said he has never felt threatened by the group and added that just last week he had a cordial discussion with Joe Rizoli, Jim's brother and the group's codirector.

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