Costs of SMOC suit causes concern

Costs of SMOC suit causes concern Saturday, January 12, 2008
D. Craig MacCormack 508-626-4429 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM - The Finance Committee hopes to meet soon with selectmen and other town leaders before costs of defending the federal discrimination lawsuit by SMOC against a dozen officials escalate too quickly.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Katie Murphy yesterday said she is disappointed that mediation of the case was unsuccessful, saying she and other board members had hoped to limit how much the town spent on the case.

In November, Town Meeting created a special account and transferred $150,000 from the reserve fund to defend the case filed in U.S. District Court in Boston a month earlier.

"The Finance Committee is very concerned about the financial impact this has the potential to have," said Murphy.  "This is very troubling and could have some serious implications for Framingham for years to come.

"Maybe not all Framingham taxpayers want to spend all of our money on this lawsuit," she said, adding the case is likely to cost millions to defend if it is not settled.

So far, Boston law firm Mintz Levin has sent only one bill, for about $20,000, to Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Kelley in connection with its defense of town officials in the SMOC case.

Kelley expects to see more bills from Mintz Levin soon, she said.  Jeffrey Robbins, the lead attorney on the town's defense team, said yesterday he does not know the total cost incurred by the town in the case.

In its complaint, SMOC charges the defendants with engaging in what it calls "a coordinated effort" to push disabled people out of town by limiting where they can live.  The sides will meet with Judge Douglas Woodlock in federal court Jan. 22 to set up a schedule.

Defendants in the case include Town Manager Julian Suso, Human Services Coordinator Alexis Silver, three selectmen, four Planning Board members, four Town Meeting members and private citizens Anthony Siciliano and Harold Wolfe.

"It's hard to say what will happen," said Robbins.  "SMOC has some thinking it needs to do about what it has set in motion.  Sometimes filing a lawsuit is like a boomerang.  It brings a lot more blow-back than it started out with.  SMOC has to figure out a way to get out of the hole it dug for itself."

That hole, said Robbins, includes financial considerations, public relations backlash, disclosure obligations and other factors.

Howard Cooper, lawyer for South Middlesex Opportunity Council, welcomes a settlement offer from Framingham's officials, but isn't sure if one will be forthcoming.

"SMOC's intent is to pursue this very important civil rights case in court unless they are given a reason not to do so," he said.  "This case is just too important to those people who are disadvantaged and disabled to do anything else.

"We remain open to any reasonable offer we receive.  We continue to believe it is very much in the town of Framingham's interest to settle the case," said Cooper.

The town's reserve fund has $250,000 remaining, said Kelley, but there are several areas to which it may be allocated, including snow and ice removal, which is more than $400,000 over budget.

"There are three or four things we're watching" that may need to be paid for out of the reserve fund, she said.

The Finance Committee can transfer money from the reserve fund to the special SMOC case account, said Kelley, but Town Meeting would have to approve a transfer from one appropriation to the special account.

That includes budget surpluses in other departments and free cash, she said.

"If it gets to be a huge expense, then we'd probably have to start looking at the stabilization fund," said Kelley, adding such a move would be a last resort.  The stabilization fund stands at $5.2 million.

"There's not very much left anywhere," she said.

Send comments to: