NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — City councilors want their right to speak to their attorney.
Councilors have been grumbling for some time over having to go through the mayor's office to reach the city solicitor. The changes were implemented earlier this year when the city engaged KP Law of Boston, a firm specializing in municipal law.
Mayor Thomas Bernard's response to their concerns was "absolutely unacceptable," City Councilor Jason LaForest said at Monday's General Government Committee meeting.
"It is a violation of our charter and ordinances," he said.
In his communication to the committee, the mayor said city staff and the state Division of Local Services may be able to provide answers for their questions. Should councilors need more, they can contact his office.
"The first thing we will do is review the request. In some cases there are other avenues of opinion we can access before engaging the solicitor," Chairman Eric Buddington read. "When something should appropriately and necessarily go to the solicitor, [Administrative Officer Michael Canales] or I will pass along the request, obtain a written opinion and return that to the requester."
The councilors pointed to the city's ordinances that state the solicitor "shall also appear as counsel" to governmental bodies or departments when requested by the City Council.
"The City Solicitor shall, whenever so required by the mayor, the City Council or any officer of the City government who may need the same in the discharge of official duty, furnish them or any of them with his legal opinion, upon any subject touching the duties of their respective offices," the ordinance reads.
Buddington said he agreed with LaForest that routing requests for opinions through the mayor "for possible forwarding to the solicitor does not fulfill those requirements."
The councilors were particularly irate that the administrative officer, who does not have a legal degree, should determine whether a query required an attorney's response.
"We are an elected body and I believe we should be trusted with questions that are going to be valid to the solicitor," committee member Rebecca Cohen said, adding, "I think we need to recommend that the mayor and the administrator follow the charter."
John B. DeRosa, and by extension the several law firms of which he was a partner, was the city solicitor for 35 years until stepping down in March. His office was rarely more than a block away from City Hall and he could be called upon to attend meetings and provide guidance. At least once, he hustled to City Hall on is own after watching the council's deliberations on television over a ballot vote.
The city's first two administrative officers had also been attorneys and could provide legal guidance.
Now, councilors say, they not only have their queries reviewed by the administration, but they also are not getting answers in a timely manner.
And if the current administrative officer is looking up state law on the council's behalf, said committee member Paul Hopkins, "someone is giving us a legal opinion who is not a lawyer."
The committee will report back to the full City Council that the mayor should follow the charter and the council should have direct access to the city solicitor.
"I'm going to recommend when it comes time for budget that we look at what these past legal expenses cost us," said City Council President Keith Bona. "In my opinion, if it cost us the same that we've been paying, we need to go back to what we were."
The city entered into a one-year contract with KP Law at $46,000, the same amount as legal services for the year before.
Councilors also want easier access to their own chamber and City Hall.
Members say they've had trouble scheduling meetings and, last week, a gathering in chambers nearly ran into the council's regular 7:30 p.m. meeting.
"Three times I have booked a date in City Hall, every time it was on a Wednesday, and it was not easy any of those times," said Buddington. "The last time, I didn't get a no, I thought it was, but it was an ambiguous response. ... As a council, we should have a simple procedure for simply reserving rooms."
Buddington had brought the problem of access to the council's attention earlier in October accompanied by a request to amend the rules that restricted the council's committee meetings to City Hall.
He had planned to hold a meeting at the UNO Community Center earlier this fall to allow greater community participation but was unable to because of the longstanding rules.
"While the mayor's office did agree to keep the building open for us, it required several emails and I only received confirmation six hours before the regular meeting," he wrote in a communication to the council dated Oct. 3.
Bona likened it to "getting kicked out your own house so someone else can have a party."
"I think we need to be somewhat protective of our office and our chamber," Bona said. "When we need to have a meeting we should not be the ones having to find another place."
The Pittsfield City Council has the right to bump anyone having meetings in its chamber, he said, plus there's a keyholder in the building 24/7 for access. That's the not case in North Adams, where the custodian is usually waiting for the meetings to end to lock up the building.
"He's sitting here in our meetings and you can tell he's exhausted," said Cohen. "It's not fair to him either."
While the custodian has evinced that he likes to listen to the meetings, Bona said his presence does cause some pressure to rush things because he's done and waiting for them. Councilor Benjamin Lamb noted that meetings have also been running longer than they have in the past.
Bona said the council should have access to chambers through a key or keypad. All of the other offices are locked after hours but the chamber and the bathroom are open.
Lamb said the keypad could cause a problem if the public can't also get in. Other councilors said the entrance could still be open — if the custodian is off doing something now people can still come in unsupervised while a meeting is in session.
They did agree that security systems should be a priority in the planned renovations for moving the School Department into the second floor. The relocation may also tighten up meeting space.
"We need to be priority to this room and if there's another meeting, it should be moved," Cohen said.
The committee will recommend back to the full council that it have priority for use; that scheduling be codified as going through the city clerk's office; and that some form of access to City Hall be made available to city councilors. Buddington was charged with putting it into an ordinance.
The committee is also recommending that a restriction to holding committee meetings at City Hall be removed from the rules so that in certain circumstances such gatherings can be held at appropriate venues. Cohen believes City Hall and Council Chambers, once a courtroom, can be intimidating for some people.
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