Framingham Town Meeting to discuss SMOC lawsuit tonight Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News

FRAMINGHAM -- Town Meeting tonight will consider approving $350,000 more for the legal defense in the SMOC lawsuit.

In its complaint, the South Middlesex Opportunity Council named selectmen, Planning Board members, and Town Meeting members, alleging a handful of officials tried to block expansion of its social services and violated federal housing law in doing so.

SMOC alleges the town discriminated against the disabled by attempting to stall projects involving a drug rehabilitation facility and a veterans shelter.

SMOC is seeking punitive damages from individuals who serve on unpaid volunteer boards, which means the town's insurance would not cover such expenses should the council win the case and the individual defendants would have to pay their own expenses.

Paul Mina, president of the United Way of Tri-County, suggested earlier this week that residents up in arms about SMOC's presence should not escape criticism.

"How can you morally say a veterans shelter should not be sited in Framingham?" he said. "We're talking about guys that served the country. This is not a place that's going to bring badness to Framingham."

Mina was a panelist at a forum focusing on the suit earlier this week at the Lutheran Church of Framingham.

Fellow panelist, John Kahn, who has served as selectman and town counsel, suggested selectmen have mismanaged the case, saying the town's legal defense has already used most of the last Town Meeting appropriation. He suggested the board is asking for more money for legal costs already incurred.

Selectman Jason Smith rebuffed that criticism yesterday, saying the board has a responsibility to defend the town.

"I'm disappointed in those comments when we've worked so hard to find common ground," said Smith. "John doesn't have enough information to be making any kind of accusations."

Speculating on why Town Counsel Chris Petrini was not handling the case, Kahn said Petrini may have withdrawn himself from the case because he could be a witness.

If he were defending the town in that event, that would be "grossly inappropriate," said Kahn.

Petrini's withdrawal from the case also caught the attention of Mina.

"He was handling the case and then he's not handling the case," said Mina. "There had to be some recommendation there that was important. We don't have all the facts and I don't have all the facts, and as John Kahn said, that is a very dangerous place to be."

The law firm Mintz Levin is defending the town.

SMOC has not gone above and beyond to ingratiate itself to the community, Kahn said. He said the council no longer has Framingham government officials serving on its board. That has resulted in the organization becoming increasingly isolated from the community at large, says Kahn.

Former state Rep. John Stasik has acknowledged that Framingham, with its public transportation options, dense population and availability of low-skilled jobs, is a sensible place to locate a social service agency.

That does not mean a more stringent overview process is unnecessary, said Stasik.

He cited the Dover Amendment, a state law allowing projects that meet religious and educational criteria to skirt local zoning.

Stasik called Dover the "most liberal, most far-sweeping protection of social service agencies in the country."

"What you're seeing is local communities finally saying enough is enough, we have to have the ability to say something about these projects," said Stasik.

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