|ACLU has concerns about SMOC lawsuit||Sunday, October 28, 2007|
|D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429||Metrowest Daily News|
Both sides involved in the federal lawsuit brought this week by South Middlesex Opportunity Council against Framingham officials and private citizens could soon find themselves in the ACLU's crosshairs.
SMOC's 99-page complaint, which also includes 92 exhibits, claims violations of the Fair Housing Act, federal Rehabilitation Act, Americans With Disabilities Act and Civil Rights Act.
The suit asks the U.S. District Court to award SMOC "punitive and exemplary" damages in an amount chosen by the jury; enter a permanent injunction to require Framingham to comply with all federal and state laws; take supervisory jurisdiction over Framingham's actions to ensure compliance with the law; enter a permanent injunction requiring Framingham to issue a permanent occupancy permit for Sage House, a SMOC home for former addicts and their families; enter a permanent injunction ordering all required permits for Larry's Place, a proposed home for disabled homeless veterans; and attorneys' fees.
Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said Friday her agency is reviewing the lawsuit filed in Boston Wednesday in which SMOC alleges "a coordinated effort" to push disabled people out of town.
On one hand, said Wunsch, the allegations by SMOC of conspiracy by the defendants raises concerns among ACLU staff members. On the other, she said, it was unusual for SMOC to include defendants with no official role in the town's operations.
"Certainly there are concerns about allegations of a town trying to keep out any kind of group homes or people in a discriminatory way," said Wunsch, who said she had not fully reviewed the lawsuit but planned to do so.
Claiming private citizens, including Anthony Siciliano and Harold Wolfe, engaged in a conspiracy - one of eight allegations against some or all of the defendants - "easily could be used to quell free speech," said Wunsch.
"It's easy to allege a conspiracy, but that gets dangerous when you're talking about speech," she said.
In a guest column inside today's Daily News Opinion section, SMOC executive director James T. Cuddy explained the reasons behind the suit.
"We concluded that we had no choice. The cost of doing nothing to protect the rights of the vulnerable, disabled population we serve simply became too high. We concluded that to do nothing, to continue to put up with what we believe has been outright discriminatory behavior and hostility towards those amongst us who are least able to protect themselves, would be to fail in our mission to help those in need and reintegrate them into the community."
Cuddy wrote that in a two-year "campaign of intimidation" against SMOC's staff and clients, opponents have suggested SMOC workers "be tarred and feathered, that a brick should be thrown through our window, and that the 'dregs of society' and 'human waste' who we serve should not be housed, let alone welcomed" in Framingham.
Harold Wolfe is included on the defendant list as the creator of a Web site that criticizes SMOC (www.smocingham.org). Siciliano is a defendant because he wrote several e-mails criticizing SMOC and its clients on Framingham Neighbors, a townwide e-mailed discussion group with 1,000 subscribers focused on town government.
Efforts to reach SMOC attorney Howard Cooper of the Boston-based law firm Todd and Weld Friday were unsuccessful.
Several of the defendants, including Selectman Ginger Esty, Planning Board member Sue Bernstein and Town Meeting members Cynthia Laurora and Laurie Lee, were among those served Wednesday night with their legal paperwork before the special session of Town Meeting.
Town Meeting member Janet Leombruno initiated an effort to gather signatures on a petition asking for a special Town Meeting to augment the town's legal budget to defend the case. The petition needs signatures from at least 200 registered voters for selectmen to call the special meeting.
Discussion about the lawsuit continued yesterday on Framingham Neighbors (frambors.syslang.net).
Joel Feingold wrote that he believes Town Counsel Chris Petrini will have to farm out the case to another attorney, saying he was a witness to several of the allegations in the lawsuit. Petrini was reportedly at a conference and could not be reached for comment.
Fellow poster Lynn Joiner suggested those on the Frambors mailing list should start a legal defense fund for the private citizens accused in the case.
Steven Orr, who started Frambors seven or eight years ago, is among the defendants in the case, as is frequent poster Peter Adams. Adams is the spokesman for Stop Tax Exempt Private Property Sprawl, a citizen's group that has pushed for the town to limit the number of social service agencies in town.
|Send comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org|