Vote to revisit spending on SMOC lawsuit June 22, 2008
Tanya Perez-Brennan Globe West
A Special Town Meeting is scheduled for Tuesday to vote on raising more money for the town's defense of a lawsuit alleging bias by officials against disadvantaged residents. But some local voters are beginning to question whether it makes sense to continue to spend money on the case.

The legal action, filed by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council in US District Court, charges that some Framingham officials and residents engaged in a pattern of actions that were designed to drive disadvantaged residents from the town. The targets of the lawsuit have denied the allegations, and they and many others in town have vowed a vehement defense in court. The town approved spending $150,000 to defend the lawsuit in November.

But some residents, including Town Meeting member Richard Paul, are pointing out that the cost is bound to escalate and wondering how much is enough.

"I think the town initially was angry; I think the citizens said to themselves, 'How dare SMOC sue the town,' " said Paul, who in April unsuccessfully asked the town for details on the cost of the suit. "And now I think . . . they're starting to look at it more objectively and say, 'How far is this going to go?' "

Some residents have gone beyond mere questioning. In January, Town Meeting member Herb Chasan started a campaign to encourage the town to settle the lawsuit through mediation.

"They're looking for more money and what we're saying is, these are tough times," he said.

Last month, Chasan and his group, Hopeful Effort to Achieve a Respectful Town, or HEART, started a petition calling for mediation. He said they have gathered 100 to 200 signatures.

"The petition is calling for both sides to sit down at the table and kick out the big, expensive lawyers from Boston," Chasan said.

The Special Town Meeting is slated to convene at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the downtown Memorial Building, following a session to allocate funds for infrastructure improvements to benefit a Genzyme Corp. expansion project.

Defendants in the SMOC lawsuit include Town Manager Julian Suso, the human services coordinator, Alexis Silver, and four members of the Board of Selectmen, Ginger Esty, Laurie Lee, Dennis Giombetti, and Jason Smith.

Town officials will not officially disclose how much the lawsuit is costing taxpayers, saying that releasing the figure would violate attorney-client privilege involving pending litigation. But in an interview in November, Framingham's town counsel, Christopher Petrini, said the case could cost each side $500,000 or more. The town has already sought insurance money to help cover the cost.

Jeffrey Robbins, a lawyer representing town officials, said he would not comment on the specific costs associated with the case.

"The Board of Selectmen has been very smart and tough and vigorous about a number of things, including making numbers go as far as possible," Robbins said. "The bottom line is that when an organization tries to bully the town and bully these volunteers who give so much of their time . . . the town really doesn't have much choice but to make sure people are defended."

Many town residents agree that the town should do whatever it has to in its own defense.

Town Meeting member Janet Leombruno said she obtained more than 700 signatures in November for the petition that led to approval of the $150,000 allotment, and supports the town raising more funds for its defense.

"We voted these people in and it could be any one of us that was on a board and could be in the same predicament," she said. "Nobody wants to spend money on the lawsuit, but we're being sued and we have to defend ourselves."

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