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Lanesborough Selectmen Deny Open Meeting Violation

By Andy McKeever
iBerkshires Staff
03:43PM / Wednesday, May 14, 2014
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Robert Barton, far right in this file photo, was still serving on the board of Selectmen at the time the email, alleged as a Open Meeting violation, was sent to his board colleagues.

LANESBOROUGH, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen are denying any wrongdoing in response to an Open Meeting law complaint.

Resident Richard Cohen has filed a complaint against the Selectmen saying they deliberated via email on May 9, 2013, regarding issues with the school.

The allegation stems from an email Robert Barton sent to Superintendent of Schools Rose Ellis and the members of the Lanesborough School Committee and the Board of Selectmen.

The full complaint, email and the Board of Selectmen's response are available at the bottom of this story.

Barton was a selectman at the time and the email was sent days before he announced his resignation to run for School Committee.

Of particular issue in Barton's email, according to Cohen's complaint, is information surrounding the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs. Barton accuses Ellis of policies that were "purposely designed to shrink our school," which led to the eventual closing of the pre-K program.

Barton's email called for a "real open dialogue" regarding the issues and says Ellis failed to address issues listed in state audits in 2010, 2012 and 2013. In 2011, the administration's decision to end midday busing for the pre-K program led to more than a 50 percent decline in enrollment, Barton said in the email.

Eleven days after sharing these views via email with the other Selectmen, Barton motioned and voted to use $25,000 of taxpayer dollars to revamp and relaunch the pre-kindergarten program in 2014. The item was placed on the town meeting warrant.

"[The email] was sent to a quorum of the three-member Board of Selectmen (John Goerlach and Bill Prendergast) and it constitutes deliberation on several matters within its jurisdiction including the staffing and funding of kindergarten and pre-K programs," Cohen's complaint reads.

Last week the Board of Selectmen responded to the attorney general's office, saying there is no evidence that Barton's email had any impact on Goerlach and Prendergast's opinion and vote on the matter. Further, the other Selectmen did not respond to the email so a discussion on the issues was not had.

"Mr. Barton's letter does comment on this issue (along with several other issues not involving the Board of Selectmen). As such, this arguably constituted Mr. Barton sharing his opinion on the subject before the Board of Selectmen with the other two members of the board," the Selectmen's response, which was crafted by attorney Brian Riley, reads. "It is notable, however, that the other Selectmen did not respond to this letter (within or outside of a Selectmen's meeting) and the letter was not referenced or discussed during Selectmen's meetings."

The response continues to read, "even if you determine, therefore, that the sharing of the May 9 letter among a quorum was a 'deliberation' and a violation of OML, it was only such for Mr. Barton and not the other two Selectmen."

Cohen also alleges that the email addressed personnel issues — particularly by showing tension between Barton and Ellis. Barton's letter accuses Ellis of "quieting" him by questioning his ethics on running for School Committee.

"As awkward as it is to say, this tactic fits a pattern you seem to have established of dealing aggressively with people who disagree with you and of not listening to contrary information and alternative viewpoints," Barton's email reads. "If true, these issues may well be root causes of some of your odd decisions and continued turnover of top-level staff and even School Committee members."

After being elected to the School Committee, the Selectmen granted Barton $1,000 to survey residents on their opinions of Superintendency Union 71, which is the partnership between Lanesborough and Williamstown for the school administration led by Ellis. Barton's request was unknown among the other School Committee members at the time and then Barton continued to push for Lanesborough to opt out of SU71.

Cohen's complaint said Barton's email brings up a personnel complaint, which should have been handled by the Board of Selectmen in an executive session.

"The letter contains charges and complaints against a municipal employee, the superintendent of Lanesborough Elementary School, without giving the employee 48 hours' notice and without conducting deliberations in executive session," Cohen's complaint reads.

The Board of Selectmen say they did not need to hold an executive session because Barton's opinion was not a formal complaint and that Barton was not representing the opinion of the entire board.

"The May 9, 2013, letter was sent by Mr. Barton personally to Dr. Ellis personally and it did not represent any action or opinion of the Board of Selectmen," the Selectmen's response reads.

The Selectmen also say the period in which to file an Open Meeting law complaint had expired when Cohen filed it. Cohen said he hadn't known of the email until this year.

This is the second Open Meeting complaint Cohen has filed against town officials, particularly Barton. He has also publicly accused Barton of unethical behavior. Cohen questioned if Barton was using the Board of Selectmen to push issues regarding the school.

As a Selectmen, Barton led a charge to create smaller committees to look at various issues in town. One of those was an education committee, to which he was appointed. That committee advocated for the preschool program. Barton now sits on both that town committee and the School Committee.

Under the town committee, Barton called for a meeting about the feasibility study for a new high school, in which he questioned if the middle school students should stay at Lanesborough School. The School Committee hadn't discussed that during their meetings.

Cohen further questions Barton's ability to sit on the School Committee and participate in union negotiations because Barton's wife works at the school.

Rich Cohen's OML Complaint against the town of Lanesborough.

 

 

Lanesborough Board of Selectmen's response to an open meeting law complaint.

 


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