NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council seems to have put an end to a long-running debate on access to the city solicitor.
The council on Tuesday night voted a minor change in ordinance and agreed to a rule that requires at least a discussion before any individual councilor could request an opinion of the city solicitor.
The decision has capped two years of talks between councilors and the council and administration and reviews by two General Government Committees. The main issue that came out of the debates was whether singular councilors should have the right to query the city solicitor and thus spend taxpayer money without oversight. There has been a struggle to develop some type of oversight process.
"I've been making this argument for almost a year now," said Council President Paul Hopkins, who had led last year's General Government Committee. "I just don't think it's right than an individual — I don't care who it is — I don't think it's right that an individual can spend taxpayer money with no one else knowing about it."
Councilor Lisa Blackmer, as chairman of the most recent General Government Committee, had brought the ordinance change and a more restrictive rule forward two weeks ago but after debate, the issue was postponed to the Aug. 25 meeting.
On Tuesday, she motioned for the ordinance language to be passed to a second reading. But Councilor Marie T. Harpin, who has objected to limiting councilors' access to legal advice, questioned the need for any changes.
"This has been an ordinance that's been in place since 1986. That's 30-40 years," she said, adding that during that time there's been different councilors and constraints but the ordinance has worked. "I haven't seen any thing that would alarm me to change it. So I am going to continue to support the ordinance that we have in place."
Blackmer responded that just because it's always been there isn't a reason not to change it, otherwise they would never change anything.
"The times have changed, municipal law has gotten much more complicated. We do not have a city solicitor who is in town, who is on a set salary, payroll, whatever. Also, there are numerous resources available that were not available in 1984, 1986, 1990," she said. "Why can't you come to City Council and say this is what you want to do? ... If people had a question, then the clerk would send the question from the council to the city solicitor and I'm not sure why you want to change that part, because that's how we've done it, at least in the previous 10-15 years."
Harpin later brought up a section of Massachusetts General Law regarding seeking opinion of legal counsel, wanting to ensure the city did not run afoul of state law, but Blackmer pointed out the section referred to conflict of interest and had no bearing on their issue.
Hopkins said he would echo Blackmer's reasoning: "There have been two iterations of the General Government Committee that have taken this up and both have reached this same conclusion and advocated for making a change."
Councilors took up the issue two years ago when they felt that the administration was restricting their ability to speak with the city's new attorney, KP Law. The city had switched to the Boston municipal law firm after longtime City Solicitor John B. DeRosa had stepped down earlier in 2018. DeRosa, who had been on salary, had been local and more approachable in contrast to KP.
The council voted itself a $5,000 budget for legal services but has not used any of that money to date.
The council first approved changes in the ordinance related to the city solicitor furnishing opinions, shown in italics and strike-throughs:
"The City Solicitor shall, whenever so required by the mayor, the City Council body 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. Whenever the opinion is required to be in writing, the question submitted for histheir consideration shall also be stated in writing."
This passed 6-2, with Harpin and Councilor Keith Bona voting against; Councilor Jason LaForest was absent.
The changes proposed for Council Rule 27 got more pushback, with several councilors expressing problems with having a full council vote on every solicitor request.
Bona said he could not support the rule if a majority could prevent a councilor from getting an answer.
"I do not like that the council can then tell that one councilor we don't really care that you're not getting the answer you want so, we're not gonna allow you to use the solicitor," he said. "I've been in that position before and I would not like to see that happen in the future."
Councilor Benjamin Lamb said he had the same reservations although both he and Bona felt that any query of the solicitor should be brought before the council for transparency's sake.
Blackmer asked if they would be comfortable if other options were included, such as adding at the discretion of the president or if recommended by a majority committee vote.
"I'm not against the council knowing that a question is being asked. I'm not against that at all. I'm actually in favor of that. I think that that there's a public accountability component to this that comes through communication," said Lamb. Rather, he said, maybe it could be a communique and a discussion at council, that might answer the question. "No matter what, they would still have the option of then going forward with the request to legal counsel."
There had been cases where a minority of the council has identified an issue that took time for the majority to appreciate, he noted.
"It basically comes to, they say this is what I want to do. And no matter what we say, as a group, they're gonna do it," Blackmer said, adding her concern was that a councilor could use the city solicitor for personal agendas.
"I'm a little insulted because I've been on the council for ... this is my third year. There's never been a problem with the city solicitor," said Harpin. "So to implicate that councilors are having issues that they shouldn't be having, it's just really inappropriate."
Lamb motioned to amend the rule to change "request" to "communique" and then end it at "will then discuss" to read:
"If a Councilor or Councilors want a legal opinion from the City Solicitor, they must provide a communication put the request on the agenda with an explanation of what they are looking for and what they have done to date to take advantage of freely available information. The Council will then discuss. and vote. A simple majority will decide the question."
Bona seconded and it passed 6-2, with Blackmer and Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, also a member of General Government, voting no. The amended rule passed unanimously.
"This is a rule," said Bona. "So if for some reason we felt this was not working and the situation was getting abused, we can always change our rule in the future."
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MCLA Men Fall at Bryant and Stratton
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Detric Hearst scored 34 points Friday to lead the Bryant and Stratton men's basketball team to an 84-82 wn over MCLA.
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