Framingham selectmen move to avoid legal problems with PILOT works Wednesday, December 14, 2005 - Updated: 01:16 AM EST
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- Selectmen last night moved to defend the town against a possible lawsuit, voting to restate the mission of a committee studying social service agencies and issuing a reminder that its work should not be used in a discriminatory way.

The vote followed a legal evaluation by Town Counsel Chris Petrini on the work of the PILOT committee, which was put together to investigate the impact of social services on the town.  At least one agency has charged that the study discriminates against the disabled.

The committee, Petrini told the board, has not violated anti-discrimination laws, and he believes no liability could be imposed on the town.  The group, he said, has a First Amendment right to gather information.

But he also made a series of recommendations, in part to "help insulate the town from a successful legal challenge," according to a memo he wrote to selectmen.

Besides recommending the selectmen's vote, Petrini issued a warning to the committee members to closely watch their behavior.

"Each member of the PILOT committee should act with the decorum, fairness, objectivity and professionalism commensurate with the fact that they are representatives of the town in this important undertaking, and not purely as emissaries of their own beliefs or goals," he wrote.

Committee member Dawn Harkness asked whether Petrini had considered the behavior of fellow member Steve Orr, who in October tried to inspect the wet shelter downtown.  She argued he violated the privacy of those staying there.

Petrini said that while he did not specifically look into Orr's visit as part of his review, Orr's actions "didn't cross the line" because it was not the result of a committee vote.

"It was ill-advised," Petrini said of Orr's actions.  "I don't recommend it."

Selectmen voted to reaffirm the committee's mission, namely that its final report will be used to determine whether a voluntary payment program in lieu of taxes should be developed and not in "a manner that it would affect disparate, unfair or discriminatory treatment" of social service agencies or their clients.

During the meeting, there appeared to be some confusion over how the committee plans to use addresses of properties owned and rented by social service agencies.

Petrini wrote in his memo that he agreed with the committee's decision not to publish the addresses, "which will further avoid any appearance of discriminatory intent or effect," he wrote.  But committee member Laurie Lee said the group had not made such a decision.

According to Lee, four social service agencies have provided at least some addresses of their properties in response to a survey the committee sent out.  Surveys were distributed to about 50 agencies.

Wayside Youth and Family Support Network has provided addresses of their Framingham properties, Lee said, while Advocates Inc. has provided only a handful of the locations it owns, rents and serves.  Advocates has expressed concern that the committee is unfairly targeting nonprofits that serve the disabled.

"You cannot make anyone answer anything," Lee said.  "They have given us as much information as they're comfortable with, and that's fine."

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