Clemence says Council will review complaint
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
SOUTHBRIDGE — Town Councilor Marc DiPietro denied intentionally circumventing open meeting law after filed a complaint with Attorney General’s office on Monday.
Town Councilor Kristen Auclair contacted the Office of the Attorney General and formally filed a complaint that a March 7 letter from Mr. DiPietro violated the state open meeting law. During Monday evening’s regularly scheduled Town Council meeting, chairwoman Denise Clemence said she was notified of the alleged violation by Ms. Auclair via email late that afternoon, but had “not had time to print it or do anything.”
Mr. DiPietro, who was late to the meeting and missed the initial comments about the official complaint, did not opine as to whether a violation occurred, but stressed there was no intent to do so. “I didn’t mean to violate anything,” he assured the public at the end of Monday night’s meeting.
Mrs. Clemence announced the complaint during the “Chairman’s Announcements” portion of the meeting, requesting future violation complaints be turned into the Town Manager’s office in hard copy form rather than by email. Ms. Auclair noted that she had consulted with the Attorney General’s office as to proper procedures and was assured notification by email was appropriate. Mrs. Clemence said the complaint will be reviewed within the next 14 business days. “We will take that up as is required by law,” she affirmed.
Ms. Auclair stressed the complaint is part of her desire for greater transparency in local government.
“Since I’ve been on the Council, since I even ran for the Council, I talked about transparency in government,” she said at the meeting. “I will always fight for transparency.”
She later added: “The public has the right to know everything that is being said between this council.”
Ms. Auclair alleges Mr. DiPietro discussed pending business last week, over the transfer of funds to pay for a forklift, in writing and disseminating emails and a memo to full membership of the Town Council, in violation of the open meeting law.
Ms. Auclair’s complaint alleges Mr. DiPietro authored a letter March 7 addressed to the Town Council in which discussed his “opinions and possible courses of action regarding an agenda item that was discussed” at the March 6 meeting of the Town Council and its Department of Public Works subcommittee. Mr. DiPietro, chairman of the DPW subcommittee, cited a slow learning curve in some aspects of serving as a publicly elected official.
“This forum has been very difficult for me to learn. I’m used to having a clearcut conversation with folks,” he said. “My only intention was to quell ongoing phone calls and this great big thing that I thought was about to blow up.”
Ms. Auclair suggested the tone and some of the wording in the letter suggested its author was seeking to make amends after last week’s long and contentious subcommittee meeting.
“If you have a need to clear your conscience after you run a meeting … clearly you’re not doing your job right,” Ms. Auclair insisted.
Mr. DiPietro rebutled: “I promise you that the correspondence, whether its violating the open meeting law, had nothing to do with clearing my conscience. My conscience is quite clear.”
He added that Ms. Auclair has “way more experience” in the role of councilor, and expressed a willingness to learn the appropriate protocols to avoid any possible violations in the future.
Mrs. Clemence cut Mr. DiPietro’s comments short, stating the Town Council will review the complaint within the timeframe alloted by the Attorney General’s office.
“We will discuss that fully like we’re supposed to and we’ll send a statement to the A.G.’s office like we’re supposed to,” she said. “We’re not doing it tonight.”
Mrs. Clemence added that she would ensure written materials providing guidance, as well as links to websites, would be provided to all members of the Town Council in an effort to educate and inform its members.
The letter in question was sent via electronic communication to the Town Council and a quorum of the DPW subcommittee, Ms. Auclair wrote in her complaint.
“These are deliberations and opinions that belong in an Open Meeting, not in an email to Council and department heads,” she wrote in the complaint. “It is my opinion that the extra step of delivering the letter to town hall was to intentionally circumvent” the open meeting law by having an employee in the town manager’s office instructed to disseminate the letter to the Town Council.
“This is my opinion due to previous warning and the additional step of creating a notice rather than emailing directly, although both are blatant attempts of deliberating outside a public meeting (where the content was discussed at lengthy by a quorum of Councilors present),” Ms. Auclair wrote in the complaint.
The March 7 letter in question was penned by Mr. DiPietro and addressed to “The Town Council, all Town Department Heads, and The Town Manager.” He wrote that he was “put to task by the Council Chair to research” the circumstances surrounding a recent forklift purchase by the DPW.
“As a result of my time spent on this subject and personal Review of Charter I came to the following conclusions,” Mr. DiPietro wrote, and he outlined four beliefs relative to the charter and actions of the town manager: that “the transfer of department funds forthis purchase needed approval by Council. Council was not consulted”; that the Town Council was “circumvented” by the “final purchase of this capital item”; that an “obvious problem exists in the current understanding by Management as to when council approval is required by charter for such expenditures”; and, that a need exists “for more specific language, definition, and communication between council and management regarding such expenditures.”
Mr. DiPietro said in his letter that the agenda item led to “a defensive posture” by “some department heads and management” in the March 6 DPW subcommittee meeting, but such a reaction was not intended.
“I therefore feel the need to further express that it is not my intention, nor council’s to tie the hands of our departments by overburdening them with requests for moneys that are required to operate on a day to day basis,” Mr. DiPietro wrote.
While he conceded that portions of the charter fail to “clearly define where to draw the line,” he argued that “any reasonable person can see the broad difference between the purchase of a 27K capital item and a roll of toilet paper.”
At the March 6 meeting, the town manager and several others in attendance disagreed with Mr. DiPietro’s assertion that the council should have been informed and approved of the transfer first, stressing instead that the charter sets no fiscal threshold, and allows transfers within departments regardless of dollar amounts.
Mr. DiPietro’s letter concluded by suggesting that while the March 6 meeting “ruffled some feathers,” that “No progress is ever made without a little pain and effort.” He also commended department heads and management on “doing the job they do with the sometime limited resources afforded them.” He added “Please don’t kill the messenger,” before closing with a salutation of “Submitted with Regards’ and Respect.”
Through the complaint, Ms. Auclair informed the Attorney General’s office that she has “noticed a recurring trend of certain Councilors sending emails to deliberate outside of open meeting.” The councilor added that she is seeking “very clear clarification to these members going forward that these emails are in violation of (the open meeting law) and are not conducive to open and transparent government.”