Agencies angered by probe: Some question legality Sunday, November 20, 2005
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- An investigation of local social service agencies has run into a potentially significant obstacle, as the agencies say they will withhold some information from the study committee and may not be able to answer all of its questions.

One agency also questioned the legality of the study committee's effort to collect information.  Advocates Inc. CEO Bill Taylor said the nature of the committee's questions casts "a disproportionate scrutiny" on people with disabilities.

"It looks to us that by focusing a harsh spotlight on these people -- on just social service agencies -- that means there is a harsh spotlight on protected classes, and we believe that might be a problem under federal law," Taylor said.

The PILOT committee has sent a detailed survey to between 40 and 50 social service providers, asking for addresses of their properties, funding sources and program descriptions as well as a host of other questions.

In a separate document, called an action plan, the study committee lays out 12 pages of questions it hopes to answer.  They include how social service agencies affect property values, police and fire calls related to their properties and the number of "social service students" in special education classes.

Taylor said this is a level of scrutiny "that is not brought upon anybody else in town."

But Steve Orr, a member of the PILOT committee, dismissed complaints about potential privacy violations, saying the inquiries are legal.  Any lack of answers, he said, will be included in the committee's final report.

"The choice is, are they trying to avoid answering questions by saying they're not legal or cooperating by answering questions that are legal?" he said.

Social service providers are also expressing other concerns.  Jeanne Ryan, director of development for Wayside Youth and Family Support Network, pointed to the level of detail the committee is asking for.

Wayside and other agencies, she said, are figuring out how they can provide that information.

"We're a social service agency.  We run on a shoestring budget," Ryan said.  "I know my peers are all in the same boat.  When you look at the information that's required, it's a project."

Orr countered that spending a few weeks or even six months answering the survey "is not a tremendous amount to be asking from...all these agencies based on what they have gotten from Framingham for free so far."

The PILOT committee's chairman, Bob Berman, said he has heard the complaints about the workload and potential privacy violations and wants the committee to meet with officials from the agencies to talk about their concerns.

Town Counsel Chris Petrini, meanwhile, is examining the legal restrictions of what the committee can do.  Berman said it wants addresses of social service properties so it can it investigate how those buildings affect surrounding property values.

"Really it's just a matter of some direction for us, of what we can and can't do without putting the town into a potential legal predicament," he said about Petrini's review.

Taylor and Ryan said providing exact addresses of their properties would violate the privacy of those living there.

"There is cooperation (with the committee), but it's more a matter of drawing the line so we can protect our clients, which we are legally required to do," Ryan said.

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