Suit was our last choice Sunday, November 11, 2007
Peter Reuell 508-626-4428 Metrowest Daily News
To some, it's a refusal to accept criticism and a blatant attempt to silence any and all opposition.

To Gerry Desilets and James Cuddy, though, it was simply the only choice left.

"It," of course, is the federal lawsuit filed by the South Middlesex Opportunity Council claiming Framingham officials and residents engaged in an "unlawful pattern of discrimination" aimed at stopping the agency from siting social service programs in the town.

News of the suit, predictably, touched off a tinderbox.

Longtime critics of social service agencies like SMOC reacted with outrage, claiming the suit was a thinly-veiled attempt to intimidate them into silence, while supporters began to distance themselves from the agency.

Within days, a Town Meeting member began collecting signatures to force a Special Town Meeting to fund a defense of the suit.  Another Town Meeting member demanded town officials named in the suit step down - a call officials quickly rejected.

Though he anticipated the suit would spark controversy, Cuddy, SMOC's executive director, in recent weeks said the agency felt it had no other option to defend the rights of its clients.

"It may feel precipitous, but from our perspective it feels anything but," he said.  "We didn't just decide to do this and say we're sick and tired of this, let's go file a lawsuit.

"Really, the decision was made over at least a six-month period, with extensive board involvement."

Beginning last winter, Cuddy said, the agency's 26-member Board of Directors - 10 of whom live in Framingham - put the idea of going to court on the table.  By October, members unanimously decided they had no other choice.

"When you look at the lawsuit and what the lawsuit alleges, it really speaks to our experience in Framingham, and more pertinently to not just our experience but the experience of disabled and disadvantaged people," Cuddy said.  "We took the act of filing a lawsuit because we did not believe we had any other choice."

A relationship soured

"This has been a long and winding road to the painful decision of this lawsuit," SMOC Planning Director Jerry Desilets said.

Historically, the agency and town have enjoyed a "very good" working relationship, even when it came to the siting of sometimes controversial programs.

Two years ago, though, that earlier good relationship slowly began to sour, until there was almost no communication between SMOC and town officials.

"At every turn, there was a new obstacle placed before us," Desilets said.  "There was less and less communication.  "When that working relationship shifted a couple years ago, we continued to try to work with the town, to no avail and found ourselves very frustrated.  If we're going to protect the rights (of our clients) to live in the community of their choosing, we were at a point where we could only bring that to people's attention through the court system."

That's not to say SMOC isn't interested in rebuilding that relationship.

"If the civic leadership of the community wants to have a responsible dialogue with us, we're absolutely willing to do that," Desilets said.  "But the civil leadership of the community needs to want to do that, (and) in the past couple of years, it doesn't seem like they want to have that kind of dialogue."

"We're more than willing to talk," Cuddy added.  "But the question we would ask is who do we talk to?  Who can we really talk to in this town?  Because we've talked to everybody."

As an example of that sort of dialogue, Desilets points to Worcester, where SMOC in recent years has also faced tough siting challenges, but today enjoys a relatively peaceful existence.

The source of the close relationship?

After years of fighting SMOC, Desilets said, the city recently established a Homelessness Committee, and invited SMOC and several other agencies to take seats on it.

"There's a much different kind of communication going on," he said.  "The body politic and the civic leadership of the city said we need to have the human service folks at the table with us.  There's some real communication going on.  There's nothing like that going on in the town of Framingham."

Palpable anger

Opponents who feel blind-sided by the 99-page suit, however, suggested it may be quite some time before the anger sparked by the court filing fades.

"Overall, I think SMOC probably lost far more than they have gained," said Tom O'Neill, a Lockland Avenue resident and opponent of social service agencies who wasn't named in the suit.

"I think the public reaction is just unbelievably against them," he continued.  "They just feel (SMOC) didn't have to go that far.  Whether or not they're on sound footing is something else, but the fact remains that's a massive lawsuit.  It's an insult to anybody who is running for public office or is in public office."

On the streets, O'Neill said, anger over the suit is palpable.

"I've talked to people at the doughnut shop, I have had people come up to me at church, wherever I go, people stop me in the grocery store...and they'll bring up the subject of SMOC," he said.  "And they just plain resent that this organization can come in here and cause this much turmoil.

"To have a 99-page, 3-and-one-eighth inch lawsuit dumped on you...that's where I think people are really resentful."

Though the suit has set off a fresh flurry of debate about social service agencies in town, officials from other social service agencies in recent weeks said they sympathize with the position SMOC found itself in.

"They took a strong stand in support of their clients," said Wayside Youth and Family Services president and CEO Eric Masi.  "It's an unpopular stand, but it's a courageous stand.  I'm sure they knew there would be a backlash, but they did what they felt they needed to do to uphold their client's rights."

"Any organization that works with people who are disabled has to be concerned about discrimination and has to ensure those they serve are not discriminated against," said Advocates CEO Bill Taylor.  "We've been reasonably successful at taking a collaborative approach to addressing those situations, however, at the end of the day, we have a responsibility to ensure those we support are treated fairly in accordance with the law."

Regardless of who wins or loses, the suit may have a more long-lived impact by leaving a black mark both on SMOC and the town's history.

"It's a shame it has come to this," said neighborhood activist Joel Feingold.  "It's not good either for SMOC or for Framingham.  It's much better when people are civil and talk to each other and work together.

"Human services are by far the most humane way we can handle the problems some of our fellow citizens have, particularly in the areas of decent housing and food.  (But) on the other hand, social service agencies have to understand they are part of our community."

In many ways, Feingold said, as both sides line up for the upcoming fight on the suit, each has lost sight of what's really at stake.

"On the side of looking at the town, they've lost track of how important those social service agencies are," he said. "On the part of at least one social service agency, they've lost track of how important it is for them to be considerate of the community.

"What's lost in this is that Framingham is a great place to live.  There's probably not another community, certainly not in MetroWest, which has the combination of value point housing with as good a school system with proximity to wonderful shopping, commuting to Boston and public transportation.  Framingham is a dynamite community, and that's getting lost in the crap, which is a real pity."

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