Pittsfield Councilors Call For No-Confidence Vote in City SolicitorBy Joe Durwin
08:38PM / Thursday, October 04, 2012
Updated at 10:06 p.m. on Oct. 4 with comments from Coucilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A long growing controversy over a litigation settlement between the city and Spectrum Health Systems over a new methadone clinic has culminated in a petition before the council for a vote of no confidence in City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan.
The petition, put forth by Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon and Council President Kevin Sherman, challenges the "professional competence" of Degnan as the city's legal representation with regards to her handling of the hotly debated lawsuit with the Worcester-based nonprofit. (See the timeline, pages
Yon, the only one of Pittsfield's 11 city councilors to have been deposed during the process of the case, says comments made by Degnan during court proceedings "provided client attorney information to the Plaintiff Spectrum that was harmful to the city of Pittsfield and harmful to its elected officials."
Included in the City Council packet with the petition is a five-page timeline outlining aspects of the litigation with Spectrum going back to March of this year, when the current city solicitor took over the case, replacing the city's previous legal counsel, attorney Richard Dohoney. The timeline focuses specifically on a series of events surrounding a settlement agreement in June, in which several councilors have previously publicly accused Mayor Daniel Bianchi of misleading the council, a claim the mayor has fervently denied.
Under dispute in the new petition, which will go before the council at its Tuesday, Oct. 9, meeting, are remarks made by Degnan in court on June 26, regarding Councilor Yon's participation in conversations surrounding a planned relocation of the clinic to a residential area adjacent to Berkshire Medical Center in mid-June.
Sherman said the issue is not about whether Spectrum should be here, but arose from the handling of the case.
"Going through the court documents, there was some behavior and judgement and decisions by the solicitor that were very troubling, and some statements that were very harmful to a city councilor specifically, and the city generally," said Sherman. "Which is just unacceptable, in my view."
Sherman said that this was not the first time questions had been raised about the performance of the solicitor since her appointment in January.
"For the last nine months, there have been other questionable decision making and judgement that we've seen throughout in regards to ordinances and advice on how to proceed on matters."
Sherman said he and Yon had met with the mayor on Sept. 6 to express their concerns and suggest a change in that position. When followup discussion indicated that this was not going to be the case, Sherman said he pressed for subsequent meetings with the mayor and city solicitor.
"Those meetings never materialized," said Sherman. "And at that point, we were a month out, and we had to make a decision."
Bianchi, reached for comment Thursday, did not share the view espoused by the councilors with regards to Degnan's performance.
"I think it's a shame that this would happen, because I think you have a hardworking, honest, intelligent solicitor, and I think she deserves much better than this," he said.
"I don't have a great deal of experience with this procedure," Bianchi said of a no-confidence vote. "They're used very rarely, but they certainly aren't used to promote good government, and they're generally used as a political instrument, to embarrass someone politically.
"I think the people of Pittsfield have heard enough about Spectrum. I was selected to make decisions, and I made one in the best interest of the City of Pittsfield, and I think people are ready to move on."
Sherman had expressed similar sentiments on the Spectrum case to The Berkshire Eagle in late August, when City Councilors Jonathan Lothrop, John Krol and Barry Clairmont first accused the mayor of misleading the council on the litigation, but in light of further review of the documents chose to support Yon in her petition.
"I would have done it for any of my councilors," Sherman told iBerkshires. "I do it mainly for the citizens of Pittsfield, who I feel deserve better solicitation."
Both Sherman and Bianchi stressed that regardless of the outcome of the vote before the council next week, this measure is purely a non-binding advisory action.
"They can take a vote of no confidence, and it means absolutely nothing," Bianchi told iBerkshires. "I think it's a political device, to embarrass a person, to embarrass an administration."
"It's a last resort," said Sherman. "Following the vote, what I hope to have happen is that the concerns that are expressed are really reflected upon and addressed by those who can address them."
The petition will encounter some staunch opposition if it moves forward into deliberations next week, according to at-Large City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo.
"I'm shocked and extremely disappointed by this whole petition," said Mazzeo "I'm hoping that by the time Tuesday rolls around that they come to their senses, and decide to not even go forward with it."
Mazzeo said she questions the judgment of some of her fellow councilors in coming to the conclusions they have on Degnan's performance as the city's legal representative.
"This is what we approved her for, to do this kind of work for us," Mazzeo told iBerkshires. "As far as I know, we don't have any attorneys that sit on the council."
"I'm so disappointed that they're doing this to her, and to the mayor right now. The only thing that I'm getting out of this is that it's a purely political move, because that's what a vote of no confidence means."
Mazzeo indicated her skepticism of the recent controversy over the litigation settlement with Spectrum Health Systems.
"Eventually they were going to get their building permit. We could have been tied up in court for another year or two, denying them their permit, but eventually they would have won. The whole time, ca-ching ca-ching for lawyer's fees."
Mazzeo sees continued discussion of the litigation as a divisive issue on the council that is interfering with conducting other city business.
"We can't move forward as a council anymore, because they keep dragging us back," said Mazzeo "I have to move on with my job, and they're nitpicking because she said something incorrectly, or didn't say something the way they wanted it, and that's not their right."