Selectmen acknowledge open meeting violations

By Jaime Rebhan | Feb 11, 2010

Selectmen acknowledged Tuesday that they had violated the open meeting law several times last year when they held improper executive sessions.

Acting chairman John Cronan read two letters addressed to town counsel from Plymouth County Assistant District Attorney Mary Lee, which described the violations and the actions the Board must take to remedy them. There was no additional discussion outside of the reading of the letters, dated Dec. 4, 2009, and Jan. 20, 2010.

Both letters state that the Board is required to publicly announce the details of the violations and post the minutes from the executive sessions. The Jan. 20 letter also requires the Selectmen "announce publicly in open session that it will not conduct such screening and interview processes in this manner in the future."

After the meeting, Cronan said reading the letters was enough to address the violations. "We've acknowledged them," he said.

Last month's letter said the Selectmen violated the open meeting law 14 times during last year's search for and selection of a new town administrator. The DA's office determined that the Board "improperly acted as its own preliminary screening committee or subcommittee" and met in executive session to interview and discuss candidates and finalists for the job, Lee wrote.

The Dec. 4 letter stated that the Board "failed to confine its discussions in executive session to the purpose of investigating potential criminal activity by discussing topics ... outside the scope of purpose" during May 26 and June 2, 2009, executive sessions. The topic of those sessions was the town computer audit. After reviewing the minutes, the DA's office determined that "those private discussions had little if any content about criminal matters," Lee wrote in the letter.

The computer audit, conducted by a consulting firm contracted by selectmen, is the subject of ongoing controversy in town. Seeking evidence of improper use of town computer equipment, employees of the outside company made unannounced visits to many town offices in May and confiscated the hard drives of office computers.

After some town employees and private citizens cried foul, the Plymouth County District Attorney's office confiscated the computer disk evidence from the town. Selectmen then cried foul and demanded the return of the disks. They received word last week that the district attorney's office is in the process of returning the disks to the town.

Despite much open speculation, it is still not known what selectmen were expecting the computer audit to uncover, whether those suspicions were accurate, why the district attorney's office confiscated the disks or whether the DA's involvement will result in any further legal action.

But one result of the Selectmen's acceptance of the DA's ruling on the open meeting violations may be additional public information about the audit. Part of the DA's prescribed remedy for the violations is that Selectmen post minutes of the improper executive sessions at which the computer audit was discussed.

In other business:

Lisa Irish, who works for the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, was appointed to the Board of Health as an associate member.

Patricia Zimmer was appointed to the Wareham Housing Authority. Zimmer will serve until election day, filling a space left by a member who stepped down. She said she plans to run for the permanent position.

The Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation (CEDAC) awarded the town a $300,000 loan to improve affordable housing. The money will be used to renovate the Brandy Hill Apartments.

Town Administrator Mark Andrews said the bill to keep the Wareham Free Library certified is likely "on its last leg to being approved." He said he hopes it will pass within the next few weeks.

The Selectmen approved sewer user fees in the amount of $2.3 million for the second half of fiscal year 2010.

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