Framingham officials mum on details of SMOC lawsuit Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Dan McDonald 508-626-4416 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- It took about one hour and the mere utterance of four letters before the first session of Town Meeting got heated last night.

The acronym in question? SMOC.

Article 2 of the Town Meeting warrant, a citizens petition requesting specific information about the town's legal battle with South Middlesex Opportunity Council and the funding for the town's legal defense, drew a muzzled and careful response from town officials.

"There are extremely tight restrictions on what I can publicly say," said selectmen Chairman Jason Smith, reading from a statement.

He said the town has yet to exceed the $150,000 appropriated last fall with the sole purpose of funding the defense of some town officials in the matter.

He did not specify how much of the $150,000 had been used.

In its suit, SMOC asserts that town officials made a concerted effort to block expansion of the organization's 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.

In an attempt to enlighten the public of the cost of the case and the status of the case, Richard Paul penned Article 2.

It requests town officials to delineate the legal costs of the case and asks if the town had spent any money on a U.S. Department of Justice probe into the town's land-use policy.

Asked if all of his 14 questions were answered, Paul said, "Of course not. It's client-attorney privilege and I can respect that."

Town Meeting member Robert Snider tried to pre-empt the discussion. He said it would not be appropriate for any town official to address Paul's questions because it would violate client-attorney privilege.

Snider was not alone in thinking Town Meeting was not a proper forum to discuss the suit.

The town has been sued before, said Town Meeting member Harold Geller, and none of those suits were examined with such scrutiny.

As the town is still enmeshed in the matter, Geller did not think it was appropriate for town officials to comment on the case.

"I am amazed," said Geller. "The town counsel should not be reporting on this."

While staying mum on specifics regarding the case, Smith did not miss the opportunity to criticize SMOC's suit.

He said the reasons for the suit "may only be known to its (SMOC's) executive director."

His comments prompted Town Meeting member Diane Montgomery to ask Smith to stick to the facts and not give his opinion on the case.

Town Meeting member Dawn Harkness questioned whether the Town Meeting could go into executive session to find the answers to some of Paul's questions.

Town Counsel Christopher Petrini said he had never heard of any Town Meeting going into executive session in Massachusetts.

Previously, selectmen have discussed the SMOC case in executive session.

Snider rejected Harkness' proposal, stating, "The speaker (Harkness) is so well-identified with SMOC."

Harkness said she had no conflict of interest in the matter.

Town Meeting member Alan Crane questioned whether there was a conflict of interest in processing the case on a municipal level. Paul said four selectmen and the town manager were named as defendants in the suit.

"It's a case of how can we protect Framingham from Framingham?" asked Crane.

Petrini said the case had already been considered by the state ethics commission.

SMOC spokeswoman Jane Lane, who was present at Town Meeting, said the organization would have no comment on the developments.

Ultimately Town Meeting voted to dissolve the article.

A special Town Meeting will be held tonight in Nevins Hall at 7:30.

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