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***FULL STORY*** ... And then there was no meeting

New police hires put off with lack of quorum

September 10, 2009


SOUTHBRIDGE —Under the threat of being "taken out" by his own chairman, Town Councilor Albert Vecchia arrived at Town Hall Tuesday night for a scheduled meeting of the Protection of Persons and Property Subcommittee.

Vecchia chairs that panel, which on this night was slated to discuss, among other things, the hiring of a police officer.

The meeting was never held, however, because no members other than Vecchia showed up.

To him, it seemed pretty clear what had happened.

"It doesn't surprise me," Vecchia said yesterday. "What [Town Council Chairman Steve] Lazo accomplished is he put the kibosh on hiring a new police officer. [Police Chief] Danny [Charette] had a name to put forward and we weren't able to bring it forward for Monday's [Town Council] meeting.

"Lazo accomplished what he wanted to do.

In fact, said Lazo, "I did what I said I was going to do. I took him out."

On Tuesday, before Vecchia was supposed to hold his meeting, Lazo delivered a letter to the councilor's house in which he wrote: "Please be advised as of today, you are formally removed as Chairman of the Persons Protection and Property subcommittee. As Chairman of the Southbridge Town Council I am invoking my right to remove you on the grounds of insubordination."

Lazo said he never specifically told members of the PPP Subcommittee not to attend Tuesday's meeting, but admitted he called each of them Monday night and said he was removing Vecchia as chair and "I don't think you should have to show up" since there's not going to be a chairman.

Lazo has made no secret that he wants Vecchia out as subcommittee chairman, saying he reached that conclusion after the last council meeting, during which Lazo thought Vecchia, who is the council's vice chairman, sidestepped him by not directing certain comments and requests through the chair. When Vecchia went ahead and held a PPP meeting after Lazo had told him not to (at which members voted 2-1 to hire a new police officer), Lazo said he told Town Manager Christopher Clark he was going to remove Vecchia as chair of that subcommittee.

The problem was that, according to Town Counsel Kopelman & Paige, there is no specific provision allowing the council chairman to remove a subcommittee chairman. That's according to a Jan. 22, 2002 opinion from the law firm over the same issue, in which attorney Brian W. Riley writes: "When a subcommittee chairman is appointed to a subcommittee for a fixed term there is no mechanism in the Town Council Rules for removal However, amending the Rules as indicated below will provide a mechanism for removal and effectuate a change in Chairperson, if the rule is appropriately adopted."

Yet, at the end of that same written opinion, Riley states: "As I noted at the outset, previous Council Chairmen have apparently made such mid-term changes of subcommittee chairman. Please be advised that such action was not "illegal," in that this issue is only a matter of parliamentary procedure. No provision of the Town Charter, bylaws or Council rules prohibited such action by the Council Chairman."

That, said Lazo, is precisely what compelled him to deliver Tuesday's letter to Vecchia.

"It's not illegal for me to do it," he said of removing a subcommittee chairman.

Still, he wants the rule officially changed. The agenda for Monday night's council meeting will, according to a memo from Christopher Clark, include an agenda item to amend Town Council Rules and Regulations by adding the following provision: "A Subcommittee Chairman serves at the pleasure of the Chairman."

Lazo said he planned to bring up the matter at a General Government Subcommittee meeting Wednesday night, during which he said members would also discuss changing the rules so that citizen members of subcommittees would serve for one year, instead of six months, as is current practice.

As for who he would tab as Vecchia's replacement Monday night, Lazo declined to say.

According to a source familiar with the issue, however, Pam Regis will be appointed PPP chairman.

Lazo did say he will tell the new chairman to bring to the first new subcommittee meeting the same agenda Vecchia had for Tuesday.

In addition to Vecchia, serving on the PPP Subcommittee are Councilors Richard Logan and Conrad Vandal and citizen members Ed Bergeron and Roger Caouette.

Of them Vandal was able to be reached for comment before deadline, and he said he was not told to refrain from attending the meeting.

"I could have made it, but I was really whipped," Vandal said. "I had a VA appointment in Jamaica Plain."

He did reiterate his opposition to hiring any new police officers now, however, restating an opinion voiced at an earlier subcommittee meeting that the panel should wait 90 days and "see where our finances sit."

As for the possibility of amending council rules to allow the Town Council chairman to remove subcommittee chairs at his will, Vandal said, "I thought that's what it was to begin with. I think that's fair. You work for the chairman. You've got to have some boss. I don't have a problem with it."

Vandal said he did not think politics was getting in the way of public safety.

"Southbridge is a very political town. A very political town," he said. "I've learned that through the years. I really don't think [the dispute between Lazo and Vecchia] is getting in the way. If they waited 90 days, I would have gone with that."

Charette could not be reached for comment.

Vecchia has said that, if the council approves the change to allow chairmen to remove subcommittee chairs, it will give Lazo "absolute power," something he said is not representative of a democracy.

"No," said Lazo in response. "You know what? I would never remove Mr. Vecchia if he didn't do what he did."

Lazo said he wants future chairmen to have the same authority.

"This [rule change] should have been done in 2002," he said.

Walter Bird Jr. may be reached at 508-909-4107 or via e-mail at wbird@stonebridgepress.com


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