SMOC factors in state rep race

SMOC factors in state rep race Saturday, August 13, 2008
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News

FRAMINGHAM -- Days before the Democratic primary, the SMOC legal case has emerged at the forefront in the race for state representative in the 6th Middlesex district.

Earlier this week, lawyers for town officials fighting a federal lawsuit filed by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council, drafted a written motion to compel Dawn Harkness, a Town Meeting member and a PILOT Study Committee member, as well as a state rep candidate, to produce several pieces of information they say is relevant to the legal battle.

That information includes videotapes of public meetings and any documents that could prove or disprove SMOC's allegation that Town Meeting member Steve Orr, named as a defendant in the suit, unlawfully entered a SMOC shelter.

Harkness' attorney, Terry Klein, insists that the legal moves are being orchestrated to discredit Harkness during the election season.

Harkness, along with Chris Walsh and incumbent Pam Richardson, are running for state rep in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Last week, Orr posted his recommendation for the 6th Middlesex race on Framingham Neighbors, or Frambors, an e-mail list server he hosts. He supports Town Meeting member Chris Walsh.

Of Harkness, Orr wrote, "Her claims at wanting to provide transparency in government speak for themselves."

Earlier in the week, Orr posted links on Frambors to the legal motion to compel Harkness to hand over the tapes and other information.

The Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, Committee was formed through a June 2005 Town Meeting vote. The committee was set up to determine the financial impact on the town of tax-exempt properties and social service agencies like SMOC. Harkness was appointed to that committee later that summer, according to court documents.

After the committee finished its work, (the group released its final report in May 2006), Harkness retained ownership of videotapes of the meetings. As part of the lawsuit, the town has asked her to turn over the tapes. She has refused on principle, saying the government does not have the right to take what she says is personal property.

She also contends that the issue is moot because the meetings were audiotaped independently.

Last fall, SMOC, headquartered on Howard Street, sued the town, claiming a conspiracy of town officials and residents worked to block the expansion of its programs. In doing so, the town violated several housing laws and discriminated against the disabled, the agency alleges.

In its court claims, SMOC says the PILOT Committee's majority report twisted and distorted statistics to exaggerate the loss of tax revenue caused by social service organizations.

Harkness, who is not named in the suit, signed a dissenting minority report.

"Obviously, then, Ms. Harkness was uniquely positioned to have witnessed and, perhaps, recorded in personal notes or reports to other persons the evidence, if any, of conspiratorial conduct, falsification of data or misrepresented reporting of the committee that allegedly may have occurred," wrote the defense team in recently filed court claims.

In late June, lawyers for the town subpoenaed Harkness to turn over the videotapes and other documents tied to the PILOT committee.

Klein, her lawyer, has suggested such requests are the result of dirty politics because the SMOC suit is divisive.

In an e-mail to the News yesterday, Klein indicated Judge Douglas Woodlock had previously told the parties in the case that he would not allow them to issue subpoenas to people not named in the suit.

SMOC critics say by filing the lawsuit the organization is trampling on free speech rights and marginalizing the concerns of town boards and residents.

Heated debate has arisen at recent Town Meetings about the court case.

Lengthy e-mail strings on Frambors deride SMOC for ignoring local government.

SMOC, meanwhile, claims the town violated federal housing laws and discriminated against the disabled in delaying plans to move residential drug treatment program known as Sage House and an attempt to open Larry's Place, a veterans shelter.

Linking Harkness to such controversy is an attempt to smear her during election season, according to her lawyer.

"Ms. Harkness believes this subpoena has been served upon her for the primary purpose of attempting to scuttle her chances in the September primary," Klein wrote in a letter on July 18.

In a different letter, he wrote that some of the defendants are supporting or volunteering for Harkness' state rep opponents this fall.

In an e-mail to the News, Klein said, "Ms. Harkness has often questioned the plaintiffs' decisions to name individual public servants as defendants in this case, but the defendants' use of judicial process for political purposes is also a serious matter."

Earlier this week, attorneys for several town officials filed a motion to compel Harkness to produce documents and materials relating to the case, including the PILOT videotapes. Those lawyers argue that the videotapes have been determined to be public records.

"Videotapes may capture more than audio tapes," said Adam Simms, the town's lawyer. "The mannerisms and interaction - sometimes things are literally lost in translation."

In addition, SMOC alleges that Orr, PILOT Committee member and defendant in the case, "gained unauthorized entrance to a SMOC facility through an allegedly invasive and intimidating visit to the Common Ground shelter in 2005."

The town's lawyers claims Harkness reported to SMOC that Orr boasted to her of the alleged visit. The lawyers want any documents that relate to that alleged conversation as well.

"Did she file a complaint with the police department? Report it to the town manager? Report it to SMOC?" Simms asked.

Simms anticipates that Harkness' lawyer will file opposition to the motion to produce the videotapes.

With no prominent Republican or independent challenger, the winner of next Tuesday's primary will likely seize the post. Walsh and Harkness are facing incumbent state Rep. Pam Richardson, D-Framingham.

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