By Chris Maza
LONGMEADOW – The Select Board voted to remove a petitioned article from the posted Annual Town Meeting warrant; however, the legality of such an action is unclear.
At its April 7 meeting, the board voted 3-1 with one abstention to give Town Manager Stephen Crane a directive to have Town Clerk Katherine Ingram, through the constable, strike Article 32 from the warrant. Prior to the vote, Town Counsel David Martel advised the board that he did not believe it would be legal to do so.
Selectmen Paul Santaniello, Mark Gold and Richard Foster voted in favor of the motion in spite of Martel’s opinion, while Chair Marie Angelides opposed it. Selectman Alex Grant abstained.
Article 32, which called for a referendum vote regarding debt exclusion to fund a new quint aerial fire apparatus, was added to the warrant after it was closed because Martel told Angelides and Crane that petitioned warrant articles could be added to the warrant at any time prior to the posting of the warrant.
After the article was added to the warrant, Foster brought his concerns to Martel, who said at the April 7 meeting that he was incorrect in his prior interpretation of the law and the article should not have been added after the closing of the warrant.
The warrant was closed on March 18 and the petition was brought to the Clerk’s Office on the morning of March 21 when the warrant was being finalized, but was not yet posted.
With that said, Martel said that it was his belief that once posted, a warrant could not be altered.
Crane expressed uneasiness with the directive at the meeting, stating that he did not wish to inadvertently commit an illegal act. He told Reminder Publications the following day that he sought Martel’s guidance and the town counsel suggested posting a revised copy of he warrant next to the originally posted warrant with a notation.
The warrant has not yet been published for distribution and therefore the article would not be included in copies received at residents’ homes.
The Massachusetts Municipal Association referred all questions regarding legal procedures to Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers‘ Association (MMLA) Executive Director James Lampke, who said it was not the MMLA’s practice to second guess town counsels and that he was hesitant to comment on a scenario for which he did not have all the information and a decision from a town counsel was still pending.
With that said, he added that there are ways to address an issue with an article at Town Meeting.
“The town could vote to take no action on the article, or it could be defeated,” he said. “There are various ways to deal with an article that for whatever reason you don’t want to deal with.”
Foster prompted the conversation on April 7 and went so far as to accuse Angelides of impropriety. He alleged that she was an active participant in a scheme to have an article regarding the quint truck added to the warrant after it was rejected by the board.
“We are faced with a serious situation that goes to the very core of the integrity of the town’s government,” Foster said.
Angelides rejected Foster’s insinuations, stating that she was acting in what she believed to be a legal manner in order to do what was in the best interest of the town.
“To suggest that I had some great conspiracy with the town manager and with the attorney is beyond ludicrous,” Angelides said.
On March 18, the board considered a proposed article that requested a capital expenditure of roughly $700,000 for a quint truck, but ultimately voted against it and the warrant was closed that night.
However, Foster alleged that Angelides aided a citizen in drafting a petitioned warrant article for the quint after the closing of the warrant after Martel incorrectly advised her that citizens’ petitions could be added prior to the posting of the meeting.
He added that Angelides utilized town resources, namely Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk, to draft language for the article.
“As elected officials, we have a high ethical standard that each of us have been advised of through the Commonwealth’s conflict of interest law,” Foster said. “The law requires each of us to not misuse our position of authority by obtaining benefits we are not otherwise entitled to.”
Foster, who laid no blame on Pasterczyk, said the language was drafted “during normal business hours using town equipment,” and completed on March 20.
“Paul indicates that he felt this was a direct request from a Select Board member, someone who he felt was de facto his supervisor in the chain of town management,” Foster said. “Paul further indicated to me that if a town citizen other than a Select Board member had contacted him with this request, he would not have drafted the language of a citizen’s petition [and] that he would have suggested the citizen review past warrants.”
The warrant was posted at approximately noon on March 21, and the petitioned article was included without the consultation the board or the reopening of the warrant.
Foster also expressed concerns that the paperwork associated with the warrant article was incomplete and the board did not know who the lead petitioner was because the cover sheet was missing.
He also questioned the legality of the article because it included a “misstatement of law.” He stated that only the Select Board could create a referendum question and the Town Meeting did not have the authority to do so.
Angelides defended herself against Foster’s allegations, stating that in February the Martel told her that petitioned warrant articles could be submitted until the date the warrant is published or posted.
She said she looked into the issue because she felt the board acted inappropriately during the previous warrant cycle when it struck proposed Community Preservation Commission projects from the warrant.
She also said she was surprised by the removal of the quint truck proposal from the warrant on March 18 because members of the board who voted against it were the same ones who wished to have it added to the previous fall Town Meeting. It was after the vote to remove the quint request that she mentioned, with Martel’s advice in mind, that citizens could create a petitioned article. When members of the board questioned that assertion, she said they requested a written opinion from Martel on that. Martel’s written opinion echoed his previous ruling, which he had conveyed verbally to Angelides.
Martel later admitted that interpretation was incorrect, explaining he was unaware of the fact that the warrant had already been closed.
Angelides said after the March 18 meeting, a citizen contacted her at her home and informed her that she wished to create a citizen’s petition for the quint truck. When the citizen expressed concern over her own ignorance as to the kind of language that should be included, Angelides said she advised the citizen that the article should not affect the budget and in the interest of keeping the budget intact, she drafted language for an article on behalf of the citizen, then contacted Pasterczyk directly, without including Crane in the discussion, to verify that the article was correct. At that time, Pasterczyk gave advice and corrected the language.
“If I am at fault, I am at fault for going directly to a department head,” she said.
Angelides stressed that after the article was written, she delivered it directly to the citizen and was not involved in the process of receiving signatures for the petition.
She said that based upon the advice the board received from Martel at the time and her understanding of the statute, the manner in which the warrant article was drafted and included was legitimate.
“The tradition in town was that we had the citizen’s petitions due Feb. 26. That’s not really giving the citizens, according to our tradition, to really do citizen’s petitions,” she said. “What bothers me about that is that many times we make decisions as a board after Feb. 26, which will then block the citizens’ right to petition to the legislative branch, which is Town Meeting and that is the essence of our town government.”