Town denies man's request on SMOC legal spending Thursday, June 19, 2008
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- When Richard Palmer filed a public records request with the town last month, the Garvey Road taxpayer said he wanted to know how his money was being spent.

Specifically, Palmer sought a dollar amount connected with the town's ongoing legal battle with South Middlesex Opportunity Council. He wanted to know how much of a $150,000 Town Meeting appropriation for the lawsuit had been spent.

He made his request May 7.

On May 22, the town told Palmer his request had been denied, citing attorney-client privilege.

He has contacted public records officials in the secretary of state's office to see if that decision could be overruled.

Last November, Town Meeting moved $150,000 from the town's reserve to an account intended to fund legal defense in the lawsuit.

The South Middlesex Opportunity Council - a social service agency - filed suit last fall, claiming a conspiracy involving several town officials thwarted SMOC's attempts to expand its programming.

Specifically, an attempt to open Larry's Place, a veterans shelter, and plans to move the Sage House program, a residential drug treatment program were delayed, according to court documents.

SMOC alleged the town violated federal housing laws in stalling those projects. Since that time, the Department of Justice has notified the town it will be investigating land-use in Framingham.

"The town is spending money on my behalf, and I'd like to know how much is being spent," said Palmer yesterday.

Richard Paul, a Town Meeting member, had similar requests for town luminaries at this spring's Town Meeting.

Like Palmer's request, many of Paul's questions went unanswered, with attorney-client privilege trumping such inquiries, according to the town.

"Spending is inextricably intertwined with case strategy," said Town Counsel Chris Petrini earlier this week.

Palmer disagrees.

He says such a privilege does not cover legal bills and litigation spending.

"Spending is not a legal work product under the law's definition," said Palmer.

Douglas Clifton, representative of the New England First Amendment Coalition, a group that advocates for open government, supports Palmer's stance, calling the town's behavior "highly suspect."

"We don't see any legitimacy to the town's reasoning," he said. "It's withholding basic information. Legal fees are not protected by that privilege. I think the town has been disingenuous."

Asked if there was precedence for a town refusing to divulge legal expenditures, Clifton said, "It's more common than we'd like it to be."

Many times such matters do not reach the litigation stage because many taxpayers "don't have the wherewithal" to follow through in court with their requests, said Clifton.

The burden is on the person who initially filed a public records inquiry to push for their request, said Clifton.

Palmer, however, is not dissuaded.

He plans on continuing to hound the town for the information.

Palmer says he will file a public records request with the town every month for the foreseeable future.

If his attempts fail, Palmer said he would look into taking the town to court.

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