Alicea, Council meet privately
Open Meeting challenge may ensue
April 06, 2010
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this story was filed, the Southbridge Evening News filed a formal complaint with the Worcester County District Attorney's Office alleging the violation of the state's Open Meeting Law. Follow this ongoing story in your Southbridge Evening News.
BY RYAN GRANNAN-DOLL
NEWS STAFF WRITER
SOUTHBRIDGE — State Rep. Geraldo Alicea, D-Charlton, is denying he violated the state's Open Meeting Law Monday when he participated in an executive session of the Town Council to discuss bringing a Registry of Motor Vehicles branch back to town.
Southbridge resident James Sottile said "if appropriate," he will file an Open Meeting Law complaint about the meeting, expressing concern over a decision being made "behind the veil."
Several councilors denied violating the statute, which regulates how and when meetings of a governmental body can be held.
According to Council Chairman Steven Lazo, the group met behind closed doors to discuss options to bring an RMV branch back to town, but he stressed no votes were taken and no decisions were made. Lazo said he did not call for a vote because Councilor Pamela Regis was not there. He said she should have a chance to voice her thoughts before any decision is made.
The RMV last year closed its branch at the Big Bunny supermarket plaza on Main Street, and opened a new one off of the Massachusetts Turnpike 5-East service stop in Charlton. Since then, controversy has erupted with state lawmakers and residents arguing the Charlton location is not convenient and is unsafe.
The circumstances of Alicea's role in meeting are under scrutiny. Reached by telephone late Monday, former state Rep. Mark Caron, a Democrat, loudly criticized his successor, saying it is not Alicea's job to participate in lease discussions. Executive branch officials should be doing that, and not state representatives, Caron said.
"A state representative is not the in the position of negotiating leases on behalf of the state," he said. "It goes against the trust we have held with him."
Caron declined comment on whether the meeting violated the law.
Alicea, who faces Republican challenger Peter Durant, a Spencer selectman, in this year's state election, repeatedly answered "no comment" to several questions when he emerged from the meeting. Asked why he was being so tight-lipped, the sophomore legislator said, "This is a town issue" and that officials would eventually talk about the meeting.
Sottile's concern comes from how the meeting was called. He said the Town Council, at its last meeting, said the General Government Subcommittee would be gathering Monday to discussed recycling issues. Somehow, he said, that was cancelled and a meeting about the RMV was called.
While Alicea was mum on what he said during the meeting, town officials described his role and steadfastly defended it. When Alicea arrived, Town Manager Christopher Clark greeted him at the meeting room door, telling a reporter he is "an invited guest." Afterward, Clark said he invited Alicea because the town was "in negotiations which his input is of value."
"I invited him to attend because I thought he would be helpful," Clark said.
Councilor Denise Clemence said Alicea attended as a representative of the state and discussed "potential contract points," which she believed is fine.
"It was a consensus that that was appropriate," she said.
Lazo stood by Alicea because of his prior involvement with the issue.
"I believe it is OK," the chairman said of Alicea's attendance.
Clark said Alicea did not attend on the RMV's behalf, nor did they ask him to.
Several councilors, however, expressed irritation because they did not know Alicea would be attending until they showed up. Clemence said she was surprised as well, but stood by the decision.
"I was surprised, but I felt it was appropriate," she said.
Lazo said he was "miffed" because he only found out when he arrived.
Separately, several councilors also defended the executive session, despite the RMV issue becoming such a publicly debated controversy, both during multiple municipal meetings and in the local newspapers. Lazo, Vice Chairman Albert Vecchia Jr., and Clemence said they all believed the meeting was held within the laws regulations.
Lazo defended the decision saying he had originally called the executive session because he wanted to discuss a lease, which is allowed to be done behind closed doors. No lease was ever presented, he said. Saying some of the town councilors did not have all the facts on the possible branch options, Lazo said it evolved into something else.
"It was more of an update for the Town Councilors," he said.
Despite the meeting becoming an information session, the group unanimously entered executive session citing the sixth exemption of the statute — "to consider the purchase, exchange, taking, or lease or real value of property if such discussion may have a detrimental effect on the negotiating position of the governmental body."
While councilors were careful not to reveal details of the meeting, prior to Monday, officials had been discussing an option to open a branch in the Casaubon Senior Center on LaRochelle Way, under a $1-a-year-lease for five years. Some councilors, however, want to move the branch back to its former location.
Who specifically was doing the negotiating is also under the microscope. Before the meeting, Councilor Catherine Nikolla said nobody on the council should be conducting negotiations without being officially appointed as a representative, which the group had not done.
Who was allowed into the closed-door session also generated controversy. Clark threatened to call the police when both a reporter and Sottile, seeing Alicea about to walk in, demanded to be admitted entrance. Afterward, Clark said he issued the threat to maintain order.
"We have the right to have an organized meeting," he said.
The council plans to have another executive session Monday, April 12 to discuss the issue. Clark said he might invite Alicea to that meeting as well.
Ryan Grannan-Doll can be reached by phone at (508) 909-4050, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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