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Board may have violated Open Meeting Law

Aug. 6, 2014 | Chris Maza

Board of Selectmen Chair Angela Thorpe, right, and Selectman William Gorman, left, conduct an open session hearing with Recreation Director Colin Drury, not pictured, on Aug. 1.
Reminder Publications photo by Chris Maza

EAST LONGMEADOW – Board of Selectmen members Angela Thorpe and William Gorman may have committed a violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law at its Aug. 1 meeting at which it conducted an executive session hearing to address complaints regarding Recreation Department employee Timothy Larocca without him present.

Town Employees’ Union President Debbie Milliken told Reminder Publications that while she could not discuss the subject matter of the hearing, Larocca should have been present and in denying him the opportunity to do so, the board had violated his rights, according to state law.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to answer to what’s coming at them,” she said. “It’s never been done like this before.”

The executive session, which was also attended by Thorpe, the chair, Gorman, town labor attorney Layla Taylor, a partner at Sullivan Hayes & Quinn, and Town Counsel James Donahue, took place for approximately 45 minutes before concluding. A continuation of Larocca’s hearing took place on Aug. 6, after press time.

Selectman Paul Federici was not in attendance on Aug. 1.

According to Massachusetts General Law Chapter 30A, section 21(a)(1), a public body is allowed to meet in executive session to discuss, among other things, “the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.” However, the law further states that the subject of the hearing has the right to be present during deliberations that involve him or her and has the right to be heard. The subject also has the right to be accompanied by counsel or a representative for the purpose of advising him or her, and to take his or her own record of the session, either by audio tape or transcription at his or her own expense.

Milliken explained that through the union’s legal counsel, Larocca requested the hearing be rescheduled because he would be out of town on an already scheduled training, but the request was denied. Recreation Director Colin Drury, who was also subject of a separate hearing, said the letters informing him and Larocca of the hearings said they did not have to be in attendance.

Drury explained that Larocca was taking part in the U.S. Soccer Coaching School taking place at Harvard University in Boston to renew his United States Soccer Federation Class “A” coaching license and he had planned to participate in that program for months. Larocca is also director of coach and player development for the East Longmeadow Soccer Association, an assistant men’s soccer coach at Western New England University and director of boys programs for FC Stars of Massachusetts – West.

According to information on the program’s website, the school runs from Aug. 1 to 5 with a $950 tuition that must be paid upon confirmation of eligibility for the program. Registration took place from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, followed immediately by commencement of the program. Larocca’s hearing with the board, which was posted in accordance with state law, was scheduled for 12:30 p.m.

The program also stipulates that anyone who cancels their reservation for the course less than 30 days prior, regardless of circumstance, would forfeit 50 percent of the tuition and those who do not attend for any reason without cancelling in advance would forfeit their entire course tuition. 

Thorpe would not comment when queried about the reasoning behind denying Larocca’s request to move the meeting to another date.

“You have inquired about a matter which was discussed in executive session, and the reasons for it being held in executive session still apply. Therefore, I must respectfully decline to answer any questions about this matter at this time,” she said.

A request for comment from Taylor regarding the legality of the proceedings was also not returned.

Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the legality of the proceedings. In order for the Attorney General’s Office to make any determinations regarding potential violations, an investigation would have to take place, which can only be initiated if an Open Meeting Law complaint is filed.

Through that process, a complaint must be filed within 30 days of the alleged violations using the form provided on the Attorney General’s Office’s website or at the Town Clerk’s Office.

Once a complaint has been received, the public body in question would have 14 business days to review the complaint and send the Attorney General’s Office a copy of the complaint and describe any action taken to resolve the issue. The public body may also request additional information from the complainant within seven days of a complaint being filed and that request must be fulfilled within 10 business days.

If the complainant is not satisfied with the action taken by the public body to resolve the situation, a copy of the complaint, and any other relevant information, may be sent to the Attorney General’s Office to determine if there is reason to believe the Open Meeting Law was broken and if an investigation is necessary.

Generally investigations take approximately 90 days.

If the investigation shows that the Open Meeting Law has been violated intentionally, a hearing may take place to determine whether the violation was intentional, whether the public body, one or more of its members, or both, were responsible. A civil penalty of up to $1,000 for each violation could be assessed.

The complaints filed against Drury were withdrawn and the hearing scheduled for Aug. 6 was cancelled.

“It feels good that it’s behind me and my department so we can move forward and continue the good work we have been doing,” Drury said. “However, the situation doesn’t feel good. I think it still bears questions that need to be answered.”

Drury objected to an Aug. 1 hearing because he had not received a copy of the complaints and the heading was continued to Aug. 6. He said he received the list on Aug. 4, delivered by a police officer.

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